In the movie "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin played a factory worker so used to the repetitive actions demanded of him on the assembly line that even off-duty, he involuntarily went through the motions.
An off-duty copy editor may be Chaplin's Information Age counterpart: I've always got my antennae up for misspelled words and misusages.
A couple weeks ago I ran across a magazine reference to "Holland." I immediately thought, " 'Holland' is usually wrong and ought to be replaced with 'the Netherlands,' " and was reaching reflexively for my red pen when I saw it was a reference to Holland, Mich., which, even were I on duty, I wouldn't need to change. (A colleague calls this "search-and-replace editing.")
The Dutch referendum on the European Constitution last week has meant that "Holland" was much in the news. As I pondered the really big questions such as, "Are Europeans turning their backs on continental integration?" I found myself also wondering, "How come so many people who ought to know better are calling it 'Holland' instead of 'the Netherlands'?"
Editing is often the point at which the irresistible push for shorter, simpler ways of saying things meets the immovable object of the need for standards, accuracy, and precision.
Wouldn't it be great to be able to say "Holland"? Lots of people do - but not quite correctly. Holland was a county in the Holy Roman Empire. Today, North Holland and South Holland are two provinces of the constitutional monarchy now properly known as the Netherlands. And we editors can't pretend we don't know this stuff. Darn!
Similarly, I wish we could get more use out of "Ulster." It's often used to mean "Northern Ireland" - the six counties of the Emerald Isle that are part of the United Kingdom, rather than the Republic of Ireland. "Ulster" is shorter than "Northern Ireland" and makes for less cumbersome compounds. But it's not politically correct, alas. "Ulster" was one of the traditional provinces of Ireland. Its nine counties include three that are today in the Republic. Thus Ulster does not equal Northern Ireland.
"Holland" has been on my mental map since the days of picture books full of wooden shoes and windmills. But at some point - learning in school about the Pilgrims' stopover in Leiden on their way to the New World, perhaps? - we picked up the message that "the Netherlands" was the better term.
For extra credit, we found out that "the Low Countries" is a little trio consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. These three are also known by the beneficent and luxurious, if also somewhat soapy-sounding, name of the Benelux countries; as such they were a precursor of today's European Union. (The Gray and Damp Countries are somewhere nearby, perhaps across the Channel; the Sunny Countries are to the south.)
Sometimes political correctness and simplicity coincide. The European Community has become the European Union. Reunification has given us "Germany" instead of East and West Germany. The Soviet Union has dissolved, and it is once again OK to speak simply of Russia and the Russians. Whew.
And not to minimize the continuing challenges among the developing democracies (or not-so-democratic states) within the former USSR, but a swap that lets us unload "the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic" in favor of the simplicity of "Belarus" is a good deal.
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