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Our November-issue symposium, "What, Me Vote?," brought many responses from readers eager to state their agreements and disagreements with any or all of the two dozen friends and colleagues whom we had invited to declare their Presidential preferences. Much of the correspondence was passionate, even vehement--but all of it was too late, of course, to get into print before Election Day. So we read the letters, nodded vigorously in concurrence or shook our heads emphatically in dissent, and filed the missives away.

But one Canadian subscriber, presumably somewhat less emotionally involved in the U.S. Presidential campaign, wrote to inquire instead about the terminology used by some of our contributors. He was puzzled. "I thought I was up-to-date, well-read, and articulate," he said. "But I need help. Now. Please explain." And he cited four allusions that had escaped him. Because some other readers may be in the same fix, I'll try to answer his questions..

The first dealt with Molly Ivins's reference to Bill Clinton as "a closet policy wonk." I'm told that a wonk is, in recent collegiate slang, an earnest, hard-working student who is determined to master the arcane details of his or her discipline--a computer wonk, for example, or an astrophysics wonk. There is an implication of grim, unattractive single-mindedness--such students were sometimes referred to, in earlier times, as greasy grinds. When Molly Ivins called Clinton a policy wonk, however, she intended it as a compliment: Unlike many politicians, she indicated, he actually immersed himself in the details of policy. But as a politician, he kept his serious side out of sight, making him a closet policy wonk.

Our perplexed subscriber's second question dealt with June Jordan's reference to "Latino-Americans and Chicanos." He asked, "What's the difference?" That's an easy one. Chicanos are, specifically, Americans of Mexican descent. Latino-Americans, on the other hand, may have their origins in any of the Spanish- or Portuguese- speaking nations of this Hemisphere.

Third, our correspondent wondered what Lawrence Walsh meant when he referred to Clinton as "a toady of ... the slobola K Street fixers who dance for dollars. . . ." Walsh definitely did not intend this as a compliment. K Street Northwest, a few blocks from the White House, is where many of the high-powered Washington lawyers, lobbyists, and influence peddlers have their offices--the kind of people sometimes referred to as rainmakers, who manipulate legislation and Executive Branch policy to suit the purposes of their corporate clients. Slobola is, I assume, Walsh's coinage to signify that these are slobs who engage in payola.

Finally--also from Walsh's Presidential-election commentary, the assertion that "there's a big Fala vote a-building." What's a big Fala vote? Fala was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Scottish terrier, and when Republicans accused him of having Fala transported at public expense, the President made the most of it, denouncing his opponents for going after his harmless little dog. A big Fala vote is, therefore, one that has nothing to do with the issues and everything to do with the public-relations symbols that can affect the outcome of an election campaign.

Our Canadian subscriber's request for explanations points to a larger and more complicated question: As editors, how much are we obliged to clarify and explain? It's a tricky business. If we assume that we must spell out everything, we risk being tedious and boring. If we assume that our readers know everything, we risk being cryptic and arch. It's a judgment call, and we try to steer a middle course.

Many years ago, when I was The Progressive's Washington correspondent, I wrote a piece in which I suggested that a certain U.S. Senator--the late Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois--had engaged in histrionics the likes of which had not been seen or heard since Maurice Schwartz trod the boards at the Second Avenue Theater. My editor, Morris H. Rubin, said the reference to the Yiddish stage would baffle most readers. I agreed, but felt nonetheless that such a happy metaphor was worth presenting in the pages of The Progressive. Some readers would get it, and they would be appreciative. I don't remember how we resolved our dispute, but I still think I was right.

Such writers as Molly Ivins, June Jordan, and Lawrence Walsh are careful stylists who think hard about the words they use to say what they intend to convey. Sometimes their choice of language means a little extra work for the reader--an inquiry to a friend, a trip to the dictionary, even a puzzled letter to the editor. Why not?
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Title Annotation:how editors edit florid, obscure writing
Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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