‘E-waste’ Finds Its Way into the Dictionary
Once upon a time there was a newspaper editor who, whenever a reporter asked how to spell a word, would throw a copy of the dictionary across the newsroom, striking that poor reporter in the head.
This wasn’t some lightweight, dog-eared paperback copy of the dictionary, but a full-size hardcover edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, containing almost every known word in the English language. This also wasn’t a good-natured toss that spoke volumes, the message being “Oh, young, intrepid journalist … here is a book to guide you in your writing.” This was an attempt to repeat Joe Namath’s AFL Championship game-winning pass, thrown at the reporter’s head, usually with gusto from a close proximity.
A cub reporter covering, say, city council or the police beat, could choose to expertly write his news story on an IBM Selectric II Typewriter on the fringe of the newsroom furthest from the rim (editor’s desk) and she would still find him. If you were writing furiously to meet the morning deadline and suddenly erred by asking aloud how to spell a word like “maleficent,” to use an unusual word that is in the public vernacular these days, the editor would get out of her forever-squeaking chair to come pummel you like a pro wrestler with a fresh folding chair. If she was in a particularly sour mood, she’d haul out the Merriam-Webster Dictionary AND Thesaurus.
The editor may have considered it a playful as well as a tutorial act, but it brought everything in the newsroom to a standstill. Heads ducked. Writing stopped. Phone conversations halted. Eyes bulged. Smirks were stifled. Unless it happened to you, it could be construed as funny.
Naturally, the result of this life lesson was “Look it up yourself.”
The reporters in the newsroom quickly learned to keep their own dictionaries handy and didn’t interrupt everyone else’s efforts to meet their deadlines by asking stupid questions. I, of course, was once that young, intrepid newspaper reporter, and in that position, I was yelled at by city officials, offered bribes, punched in the jaw, kicked by a cow, thrown off a train (literally) and shot at by criminals with bad aim, but nothing hurt my pride more than a whack against the noggin from my editor for not knowing, off the top of my head, how to spell “floccinaucinihilipilification.” And no, I’m not going to provide the definition.
Needless to say, these sometimes painful lessons in journalism took place many years ago, as my references to typewriters and Joe Namath might reveal, but I bring them up today because my former editor came to mind recently when I saw that the online database of the updated 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes the word “e-waste” for the first time. I was e-l-a-t-e-d. I have been using this term for almost 10 years and it was kind of p-i-q-u-a-n-t to discover that “e-waste” is now mainstream enough to be included in the dictionary. You can check it out at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/e-waste.
For years, I have been at odds with fellow writers in the industry who choose to capitalize the “w” in e-waste when using it in headlines, so I feel somewhat v-i-n-d-i-c-a-t-e-d to see Merriam-Webster agree with my assessment to keep the “w” lowercase. It’s not a big thing, but to a writer who digs for e-waste news for a living (Arrow Value Recovery News Bureau), it’s simply p-r-o-d-i-g-i-o-u-s.
In news coverage of the announcement, Merriam-Webster lexicographer and editor Peter Sokolowski officially defined “e-waste” as “waste consisting of discarded electronic products, such as computers, televisions and mobile phones.” Between the lines, you can also recognize that e-waste encompasses many common end-of-life-cycle electronics that can be reused, refurbished or recycled.
A lot of what is deemed e-waste consists of whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for material value recovery. On the downside, tons of e-waste items are shipped to developing countries each year, where it is processed by impoverished workers, many of them children, in primitive conditions with little protection against the toxins exposed to the environment, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN).
When my dictionary-throwing editor passed away a few years ago, there were a lot of other former reporters like me present at her memorial service. I would venture to say that most had their own share of noggin scars from her efforts to teach us a practical lesson about investigative journalism. Some, like me, were there to pay their respects. Others attended because they wanted to see if she really was going to be buried with that battered dictionary as she always claimed she would when she reached the end of her life. Sure enough, there she was in the casket with that tool of her trade tucked under her forever-stilled right hand.
Those of us who respected our editor thought there was something not quite right about that scene. Everyone who knew her also knew she threw the dictionary with her left hand.