British regulators’ recent approval of “gene-editing experiments on human embryos,” to quote The Associated Press, was big news in many fields: genetics, ethics, public policy, and, of course, medicine.
But the story caught my wordsmith’s eye because of its use of a simple verb: edit. It’s come a long way since it first arrived in English, at the end of the 18th century, to refer to the work of those we now refer to as “publishers.”
Publishing originally meant “to make publicly known,” going back to the mid-14th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Movable type and the printing press were already into their second century when the translators of the King James Bible rendered a passage of Psalm 68 as “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” (An inscription of this passage graces the building where the Monitor’s offices are located, by the way.)
But the psalmist’s notion of publishing did not involve paper and ink, and holiday concertgoers will recall that Handel’s “Messiah” renders the line, “great was the company of the preachers.”
Publish was also a short form for “to publish the banns” – to make a public statement of a couple’s intent to marry. The Oxford English Dictionary cites public records in Salem, Mass., in 1724: “Mary Flint & Saml. Wainwright published Nov. 29 & married January 27.” It sounds somehow proto-Facebook, doesn’t it?
Editor, from Latin words meaning essentially “bringing forth” or “giving out,” first meant “publisher,” but by the 18th century, it had come to mean one who prepares a literary work for publication. One does that, of course, by changing it – by cutting, rearranging, rewriting, and sometimes even adding words for clarity.
This sense of edit has traveled from publishing to other fields where a finished product must be fashioned from raw material: film, broadcast, and the like.
Edit has further evolved, though, into a broader sense of “change” or “modify” that makes us all editors when, for instance, we “edit” our shipping address information online, or our “mail preferences.”
Note that these usages involve changing instructions of some sort. Edit your shipping address, and your package arrives at your office instead of your home. Edit your “mail preferences” and the flow into your inbox lessens. It’s a subtle difference, but this “editing” may be closer to the programmer’s editing of code than to a film editor’s snipping away at footage.
The AP story on the British regulators’ decision didn’t use quote marks or any other distancing device around “gene-editing,” nor did the Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, or other publications I reviewed. These news organizations have evidently decided that this use of “editing” is a logical extension of current dictionary definitions.
If genes are seen as the instructions that control the human body – the “software” that runs the “hardware,” so to speak – then edit may be exactly the right word.