Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Mix tape" no more

Posted By on 07.10.12 at 02:29 PM

mix_tape.jpg
Most serious publications have something called a "style guide," which is a collection of grammatical, spelling, and other rules that everything they publish is supposed to follow. The primary reason for having a style guide is simply to keep things consistent; between the English language's maddening refusal to conform to one standard set of rules and the personal linguistic quirks of each contributing writer, this can be a very big deal. A style guide can also imbue copy with some of the publication's institutional personality: think of the proudly eccentric abundance of umlauts in the New Yorker or the stiffly proper use of honorifics in the New York Times.

Like pretty much every style guide, the Reader's is a blend of formal, widely recognized rules and the accumulated judgment calls of a whole line of editors (currently managing editor Jerome Ludwig is our guide's steward), with just a dash of "because I said so" to settle arguments like whether it should be "A.M." or "AM." (At the Reader it's the latter.) One of the cardinal rules of our style guide is that on all matters of spelling we defer to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

And for years now the bane of my professional existence has been the fact that Merriam-Webster hasn't had an entry for "mixtape."

This is kind of a big deal. Over their decades-long history, rap mixtapes have evolved enormously: first they were promotional tools that DJs handed out, then a lawless underground alternative to the major-label system full of beat jacking and personal beef, and finally a populist art form all their own with a massive effect on the way artists of all styles make and release their music. And because M-W didn't recognize the word's existence, I have been forced on an almost weekly basis to refer to them as "mix tapes," which goes against the way it's styled by almost every rapper, DJ, rap fan, indie-rock band, journalist, et cetera in existence. And every single time I have hated doing so.

Over the years I have pleaded with I'm almost certain every single person at the Reader with the word "editor" in their job title to consider placing "mixtape" on the guide's list of "Readerese" words that we style our own way (which sometimes means doing exactly the opposite of what Merriam-Webster says). And every time I've been thwarted, with its absence from the dictionary commonly cited as the reason.

Yesterday I found myself confronted again with having to type out "mix tape" while writing a Soundboard preview of an upcoming show featuring rapper Fat Trel. I typed something about his recent "mix tape," Nightmare on E St., and Google Docs put a red squiggle under the two words, because even Google Docs knows that it should be "mixtape."

Kind of desperately, I wondered, "Is it really not in the dictionary?" So I looked up "mixtape" on m-w.com, and lo and behold there was an entry. "Mixtape" is in the online edition of Merriam-Webster, just not the print version at this point.

My e-mail to Jerome was brief and to the point and to the best of my recollection largely free of gloating and/or use of the word "motherfucker." But honestly I couldn't say for sure, since I was typing it through a veil of joyful tears and a sense of victory that imparted a hazy, triumphant glow to the world. Within minutes Jerome sent out an e-mail to the editorial staff announcing the change, then updated the official style-guide Google Doc.

As of 07/09/12 I am now free to use "mixtape" in the Reader like a civilized human being. And all of the credit goes to Fat Trel, so here's his video for "Russian Roulette" with Chicago's own Chief Keef.

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