Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the latest New Yorker called “Cocksure: Banks, Battles, and the Psychology of Overconfidence.” I’m enjoying it thoroughly, as I always do Gladwell, but I’ve run across a couple of things that bother me. As usual, he’s using one topic to illustrate another, and his illustrative example in this case is the Battle of Gallipoli in World War One. (Incidentally, “Gallipoli” is an odd name; the Greek name is Καλλίπολις [Kallipolis], ‘beautiful town,’ and the Turkish name derived from it is Gelibolu. Does anybody know the history of the hybrid form?) He writes: “Command of the landing at Sulva Bay—the most critical element of the attack—was given to Frederick Stopford, a retired officer whose experience was largely administrative.” I thought “Tsk, another misprint, and the New Yorker used to be so dependable.” But the misspelling is consistent: “he rushed to Sulva Bay to intercede”; “they held that ten-to-one advantage at Sulva Bay.” Now, I realize the war is almost a century old, and many once-famous place names have sunk beneath the waves, but hasn’t anyone at the magazine heard Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda“?
And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.”
(If you’re not familiar with it, I particularly recommend the Pogues‘ version; you can see them perform it live here.) I have no idea whether Gladwell mistyped it once and the magazine’s diligent staff made it consistent throughout or whether it was wrong throughout his manuscript, but sheesh, this is what fact-checkers are for. And take a look at this sentence (which begins the last paragraph on page 25 in the physical magazine): “Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations.” As you all know, I am the last person to go hunting through published writings searching for “ungrammatical” nits to pick—look, a dangling participle! ooh, a split infinitive!—but this is truly terrible; there is no referent for “their” except “Cohen and Gooch,” which is not the intended one, and I had to reread the sentence to understand it, which is the ultimate sin in edited writing.
And all of this is an inadvertent but perfect illustration of Gladwell’s thesis. The New Yorker was so famous for so many years for its impeccable editing and bulletproof fact-checking that it got overconfident and lazy, and now allows mistakes that would embarrass a good local newspaper.