New York Magazine‘s “Vulture” column recently ran a very funny piece on a scene in the TV show “The Wire”:
The go-getting young reporter played by Michelle Paress gets chastised for writing that (paraphrasing) “the Fire Department evacuated 120 people” during a fire. “You evacuate a building. You don’t evacuate people,” Old Curmudgeon Editor grunts. Cut to Paress’s character looking in some sort of reference book, then admiringly muttering, “He’s right, you know,” to a fellow reporter. But is he really right?
I had never heard this particular Silly Shibboleth before, but I immediately realized the etymological principle involved: the verb is from a Latin word meaning ‘to make empty [vacuus]’ and thus should be used only of emptying a building. David Simon (who wrote the dialog) explains in his response:
At the Baltimore Sun in my day, I was chastised by the great Jay Spry, rewrite man to the world, for evacuating people in my report of a downtown gas leak. I plead guilty to an anachronism if indeed that is what it now is. […]
I could not resist having the fake Jay Spry deliver the real Jay Spry’s admonition to Alma, much as he delivered it to me. Plain and simple, it was homage to a wonderful newspaper character and one of my earliest memories of my time at the Sun.
Also of note: The Baltimore Sun would never allow you to refer to a funeral home in an obit. No one lives at a funeral home, we were told. Funeral establishment was the required phrase.
The comments contain other such dictates (“Technically you can’t perform an autopsy on a different species, so if a racehorse died mysteriously and some reporter wrote that veterinarians hoped to learn more after an autopsy, it would be changed to ‘necropsy’ or ‘post-mortem examination.’ Every reporter has a million stories like this, and they’re all different”); the whole thing is lots of fun. Thanks for the tip, Doug!