Like overzealous trapeze artists, all of us occasionally need saving from ourselves. Around SPORTS ILLUSTRATED the task of providing a strong net for syntactic excess falls to our band of grammatical purists in the Copy Department. It is their job to help editors restrain or rescue writers seized by the irresistible impulse toward cloudy metaphors and faulty antecedents and caution editors whose red pencils go astray.
When Copy Chief Betty DeMeester and her five-person staff are confronted by an issue such as this week's—at 150-plus pages one of the largest in our history—the net gets stretched a little tight, but it rarely collapses. (On top of the sheer volume of material that was processed by the Copy Department for this week's magazine, the chart of Olympic winners beginning on page 88 added its quadrennial complications. DeMeester best summed these up when she began inquiring how one abbreviates Spitz.)
Considering the sort of responsibility that is laid on DeMeester's crew each week, it rates a gold for performance—and also for confidence. "We never change anything without an editor's O.K.," says DeMeester, "but on disputed points where we know we are right, we may go to a couple of editors to get it."
Because of the exigencies of events and deadlines, and because they are always among the last to complete work on each issue, the Copy Department is often required to labor odd—some might say weird—hours. DeMeester recalls the round-the-clock stint following the Frazier-Ali fight; she left the office expecting to find that it was still dark outside and was greeted instead by the morning lineup at Radio City Music Hall across the street. "That day was completely turned around," she recalls. "I found myself eating breakfast during the cocktail hour."
What sort of rescue work are DeMeester and her five staff members—Deputy Iris Herman, Deirdre Randall, Robert H. Williams, Lillian Geller and Catherine Ogilvie—required to perform?
"We keep our eyes open for the obvious things, of course—like fullbacks running downfield who literally' lose their heads," says Iris Herman. "And little things that slip by because people just know they are right—like the word 'tendonitis,' which is really spelled t-e-n-d-i-n-i-t-i-s."
All of this would seem to indicate that the most valuable asset a copy reader could bring to the job is pedantry. Actually, DeMeester says, she tries to recruit well-rounded, curious and alert people. And good spellers. Especially, good spellers. "I have a little test I give my applicants," she says, pulling out a list of words. "I've tried this on several of the editors around here. Most of them flunk it."
With malice as the goal, here is an abbreviated list of DeMeester's words, of which three are misspelled:
If you picked supersede, harass and rarefied as the proper and preferred spellings (and you know what is wrong with the others) you probably belong down there with DeMeester and her friends, holding the net for the rest of us. But only if you can keep your cool at four a.m.