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Public editor: Why the words we choose matter

Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman: Is this face of a ‘lord’?


The words you choose matter, and there were two examples this week that have provoked debate.

After this story about the arrest of suspected Mexican "drug lord" Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, a reader asked The Globe and Mail to "please stop referring to gangsters as 'lords', 'kingpins', 'barons', etc. These labels serve to reinforce the idea that these people have some claim to nobility. There is nothing noble about them. They are vicious gangsters, thieves and murderers."

In this case, that term is commonly used to describe the head of a criminal gang that sells drugs. The interesting issue is why it is so.

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Here is an article from The Telegraph on the arrest that explains how Mr. Guzman is a Robin Hood-type figure in his poor area of Mexico because his business bankrolls the economy of the region. These people are also known to behave in a medieval way of not only helping the poor but also building excessive monuments to themselves.

On another front, on Facebook many readers were critical of a column by Margaret Wente on the Ontario government's plan to require some fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus.

The paper headline was: "Obesity Crisis: A calorie law won't work." The online head is: "Will a calorie law work? Fat chance."

But it was the headline treatment on the Facebook story that has drawn attention. Above the headline, the smaller headline says: "A law that would make chain restaurants include calorie counts on their menus? Take that, fatties! You can no longer claim you didn't know!"

It is worth noting that writers and columnists do not write the headlines. An editor does.

In this case, readers responded by saying that calling people "fatties" is unacceptable and unprofessional.

The problem in this case is that if you read the article, you will see that the columnist is using sarcasm in talking about what she describes as the "nanny" state in Ontario. She mocks the plan to require the posting of calorie counts as a solution to obesity and (in my view) uses that sarcasm to suggest Ontario is saying "take that fatties …"

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Here is the first paragraph of the article: "Most people don't need a nutritionist to figure out that a Triple Whopper with fries (more than 1,300 calories) is more fattening than a plate of lettuce with lemon juice on the side. But if you are confused on this point, help is at hand. In a bold move to tackle the obesity crisis, Ontario's nanny (oops, Liberal government) has proposed a law that would make chain restaurants include calorie counts on their menus. Take that, fatties! You can no longer claim you didn't know."

To me, she is not calling people fatties, she is mocking the government's plan.

But if you use those words in a headline over the columnist's picture, that point of view loses its nuance and looks as if she is calling people fatties. Sarcasm and humour are tough to pull off, although I think it is clear in the column. It is much harder to pull off in the very few words of a headline.

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