Liable

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RIchard Pérez-Peña, “Student Paper Editors Quit at University of Georgia“, NYT 8/16/2012:

Much of the staff of the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, including the top editors, resigned Wednesday, claiming interference, even censorship, by the nonstudent managers hired to oversee it.

Polina Marinova, the editor in chief of the newspaper, The Red and Black, said in a statement that “recently, editors have felt pressure to assign stories they didn’t agree with” and “take ‘grip and grin’ photos.” […]

The walkout came after Ms. Marinova obtained a draft memo written by a board member that contained proposed guidelines for the newspaper. The memo listed, among “bad” news that was to be played down, “content that catches people or organizations doing bad things.”

The author, who was not identified, added, “I guess this is ‘journalism’ ”

According to an AP article late on Friday (“UGA paper board apologizes to student journalists“):

The board of the student-run newspaper at the University of Georgia has apologized for what it called misunderstandings that provoked most of its student journalists, including the editor-in-chief, to walk out earlier this week. […]

Board vice chairwoman Melita Easters said Friday that the student editor has always had the final editorial responsibility for the paper’s news content. She says that still is true.

Board member Ed Stamper wrote the memo that angered the students. He has apologized and resigned from the board.

But this is Language Log, not Realities Of Journalism Log, and so we need to move along to the linguistic part, which involved one word in Mr. Stamper’s memo. Specifically, “liable”, which was the last item in a bullet list of Things Not To Be Tolerated:

We will not tolerate:

  • Sarcastic comments […]
  • Obscenity. […]
  • Headlines that aren’t in English, […]
  • Liable.

The context makes it clear that Mr. Stamper meant “libel”, and this caused a certain number of sarcastic comments in the comments sections of various news outlets.

Chris Waigl added libel » liable to the Eggcorn Database back on 1/12/2005. One of her three citations was to a comment in a web forum, but the other two were to a clause in an insurance policy, and a passage in a usage agreement. And it remains easy to find libel » liable substitutions in otherwise well-edited contexts, e.g.

Sharon Pierson, “Living in a Changing Society“,  American Educational History Journal, 2010:

Or Eugene Anderson et al., Insurance Coverage Litigation, 1999:

In the cited court decision, the relevant passage reads

The exclusion provision refers to the “oral or written publication of material.” It mimics the provisions of the policy that relate to advertising injury involving libel, slander, and invasion of privacy.

In such cases, and also in Mr. Stamper’s memo, I’d suspect a Cupertino from a typo/misspelling such as “lible” or “liabel”. But who knows?

Meanwhile, back at the Red and Black, interactions continue to provide interesting linguistic data (Andrew Beaujon, “Board member of University of Georgia paper steps down after call for resignation“, Poynter 8/172012):

During the {Thursday “Open House”] meeting, publisher Harry Montevideo reportedly got into a scuffle with Joshua Buce, a reporter from the school’s Grady NewSource. In a statement, Montevideo said he and the reporter “fell to the floor” during Montevideo’s attempt to escort him out of the room.

Beajon’s article has descriptions of the incident from Montevideo and from Buce, along with a video — all of which should provide an interesting case study in eyewitness testimony.

[More on the substance of the controversy here and here.]



28 Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    I wonder if there are varieties of AmEng in which “libel” and “liable” are pure homophones (rather than close but not exact), which could increase the odds of such confusion. I think (perhaps inaccurately) of the broader use of “liable” to mean “likely/inclined” in constructions like “that dog’s liable to bite someone,” as something of a Southernism, but I’m not sure that that broader semantic range would be more likely to promote this particular confusion.

    [(myl) Now that I think about it, I pronounce liable identically with libel in the “be liable to” idiom, but differently (at least in careful speech) in the legal sense. The first one is something like [ˈlɐɛ.bl̩] (two syllables), while the second one is something like [ˈlɐɛ.ə.bl̩] (three syllables).]

  2. Brett said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: In my own natural speech, “liable” is pronounced exactly the same way as “libel.” However, as a teenager, I became aware that this was not entirely standard, so when I’m speaking very carefully, I sometimes pronounce “liable” differently that I would normally.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    I always felt like ‘liable to’ meaning likely/inclined (pronounced with two syllables) was a Southernism. But, MWUCD and the ODE give this as one of the definitions which, I think, suggests a wider usage.

    [(myl) I grew up in New England, but it’s certainly part of the English I grew up with.]

  4. xyzzyva said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    I assume this is another word on the way of diamond. It seems that /ˈaɪ.ə/ is perpetually unstable in English

    We will not tolerate:-Headlines that aren’t in English, […]

    Is there a serious risk of Georgia headlinese changing to, say, Farsi or Mongolian? Given the odd grammars of US and UK headlinese, I suppose better safe than sorry.

  5. mollymooly said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Ira Gershwin felt obliged to dialect-spell Sportin’ Life’s “liable”:

    De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
    To read in de Bible —
    It ain’t necessarily so.

  6. Aaron Harnly said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    Stamper also provides this nice little awkwardness: “It is personally embarrassing to have the public see a document to I gave little thought and so carelessly worded.”

  7. fev said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    @xyzzyva, the ban on non-English heds is a Strunkenwhite-ism, from the “use figures of speech sparingly” and “prefer the standard to the offbeat” neck of the woods:

    “Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.”

    How exceptions to that widely accepted craft rule become part of news style themselves is probably a question for Critical Discourse Analysis Log.

  8. Thom said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    Like Brett, in my hometown’s dialect in Eastern Kentucky on the edge of the Appalachian dialect, these words are homophonous as in Brewer’s example. The structure “X is liable to Y” is fairly common for the meaning described above (i.e. likely/inclined to, especially as a warning). However, other uses may not have the same pronunciation, e.g. “If it breaks, you’ll be liable.” For some reason, it seems that this second usage has a more careful pronunciation. This is all from memory–does anyone else notice that?

  9. GeorgeW said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    @Thom: I feel like I (North Florida) hear a two-three syllable distinction between likely/inclined liable and liable in a legal sense.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    I wonder if the pronunciation distinction between the different uses of liable relates to register. The two meanings are likely to come up for us in different registers of speech.

  11. John Roth said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Native Chicagoan here – I pronounce both libel and liable the same in ordinary conversation, but liable is two syllables, separated between the pair of vowels, when it’s emphasized.

    I think it’s two different words: “I’m liable to do that…” is not the same meaning as “A conviction for speeding renders you liable to an increase in premium.” It makes sense that, since both libel and the second meaning of liable are legal terms, they’d maintain a difference of pronunciation.

  12. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    People (well, lawyers, anyhow) who say the word “liable” with its legal meaning will be cued by its connection to the word “liability”; that makes it easier to maintain the three-syllable pronunciation. There’s no such cueing for “liable” meaning likely/inclined.

  13. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 12:44 am

    As a law prof, this slip is seen occasionally enough.

    But as a non-Yank, I’m struggling with “grip and grin” photos. Pleasure assure me it has nohing to do with the “squirrel grip”…

  14. Martin said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:56 am

    I’d expect lawyers to type ‘liable’ far more often than ‘libel’: so it’s an easy slip to make, since the start of the word often leads your fingers to assume they know what they’re doing with the rest. As a physicist who spends a lot of time writing about certain negatively charged elementary particles, I find it quite hard to type ‘election’.

    Graeme: ‘grip & grin’ photos involve people shaking hands for the camera (e.g. politicians and voters)… nothing more exotic. I have heard this in a British context, but only once.

  15. xyzzyva said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 1:57 am

    @Graeme,
    A Google image search for ‘grip and grin’ should give you the idea (well, except for all the fish ones).

    @fev,
    That Strunkenwhitism was totally new to me. The story being from Georgia, I was primed for an English-Only policy.

  16. J Lee said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 4:40 am

    liable to do X seems to be on its way to becoming auxiliary, but the phonological reduction could also just be southern monophthongization

  17. Ellen K. said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    But, J Lee, it isn’t a monophthongization. I suppose southerners would pronounce it with a monophthong. But for the rest of us, the “long i” dipththong (ai), remains, it’s the schwa after the diphthong that isn’t pronounced.

  18. Jason said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

    Is there a serious risk of Georgia headlinese changing to, say, Farsi or Mongolian?

    No, but imagine the uproar if the students write a spanish headline — let alone Spanish text. The fanatical “English Only” movement is doubtless strong within Georgia. “English Only” is code for “no fucking wetback lingo to be used here.”

  19. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 6:15 am

    Is there a serious risk of Georgia headlinese changing to, say, Farsi or Mongolian?
    Much more likely they would be written in Georgian (ქართული ენა).

  20. fev said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    @Jason, if I was going to speculate about student journalists’ responses to pressure from an English-only movement, I expect they’d be more likely to print the entire front page in Spanish than to ban Spanish heds.

    A style rule against non-English heds is rarely if ever aimed at a specific language. It’s a cousin of banning “Up, up, and away” from heds that accompany balloon photos. The target is stuff like “Sacre bleu! French winery serves American fromages with its vintages” (or “Ay! Mexican eatery’s tortillas are hecho in Toledo,” and yes, they really happen.)

    Some non-English words would almost certainly get by no matter what the (written or unwritten) style guide says. There’s a reverse-Eskimo-snow-word effect that supports heds like “Fatwa is fodder for feisty Letterman,” for example. But the cigar at hand is almost certainly just a cigar.

  21. un malpaso said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    As an (urban) southerner from the USA, I think I generally pronounce “libel” and “liable” the same or very close… but only in the construction, “liable to…”, both with a monophthong close to the Southern “i” in “fire”, etc.
    However, when I say “liable” as the legal term, usually as a predicate adjective, I usually lengthen the vowel to the extent that it is distinctly different from the “liable to..” shorter vowel. This may just be an “educated” reflex though, b/c when i speak quickly the length tends to fall back into the central/front /a/.

  22. Meanings: “Libel” and “Liable” | The Observatory said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    […] Log’s coverage of the story is here, with the focus is on “libel” and “liable” having become […]

  23. Craig said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    Re: the “headlines that aren’t in English” issue

    I think that since this is a memo written by the board to the student staff, you can’t really categorize it as potentially “student journalists’ responses to the English-only movement,” since it isn’t the students’ response to anything; it’s a response to the students by the (old) people who run the college.

    If you go through and read the whole memo, the rest of the list sounds like gripes against specific incidents. For example:

    We will not tolerate:

    Sarcastic comments directed at our audience in non-opinion sections, ie “it’s been a solid, Lilly Pulitzered week…” We wouldn’t say it’s been a solid yarmulke topped week at the Jewish Community Center. Or a solid burr-headed week at the African American studies conference. Or a solid body pierced day at the Red and Black. Stop this now.

    This reference is clearly to a particular story, apparently one in which the writer made a snide reference to people wearing a particular line of expensive designer clothing. The counterexamples take the format, “you know it would be racist if you made a similar comment about some traditionally pro-liberal groups, so stop mocking white people because that’s racist too. Incidentally, I will now come up with some mock examples and in the process get away with saying racist things.” Which is a classic example of a “persecuted conservatives complaining about liberal bigotry against them” rant. (See the War on Christmas, etc.)

    In this context, a few items down, we get “headlines that aren’t in English” on a list of things that the board “will not tolerate.” What this suggests to me is that (1) the statement is a response to specific instances where students put foreign words in a headline, and (2) these were more likely to have been of the political “sí se puede” than the silly “sic semper tyrannosaurus” variety.

    Which is a long way of saying that this definitely smells like subtle anti-Hispanic English-only-ism to me, but I could be wrong.

  24. J. Goard said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    @GeorgeW:

    I always felt like ‘liable to’ meaning likely/inclined (pronounced with two syllables) was a Southernism. But, MWUCD and the ODE give this as one of the definitions which, I think, suggests a wider usage.

    [(myl) I grew up in New England, but it’s certainly part of the English I grew up with.]

    I grew up in California, as did my father (about the same age as Mark), and we both use that construction a whole lot in speech. It feels more colloquial to me than “bound to”, which I’m likely to substitute in my writing.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    To digress for a moment (but still in eggcorn territory), I came across “wave-link” yesterday (as in “we are probably somewhere on the same wave-link”).

  26. David Walker said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    Regardless of whether the author claims that it was carelessly worded or not, isn’t writing “content that catches people or organizations doing bad things” one of the best things about good journalism? I would want to see more of that.

  27. Tom said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    According to Jason, “The fanatical ‘English Only’ movement is doubtless strong within Georgia.”

    Thanks, Jason, for your insight into my home state. I don’t personally recall meeting any people “fanatical” on the subject of English primacy. I’ve never seen a demagogic politician cry out to a torch-carrying mob, “English now, English tomorrow, English forever.” I’ve never heard of fistfights breaking out in redneck bars on the topic of bilingual education. And, so far as I can tell, our campuses are not afire with any demonstrations protesting the vile English-Only fanatics. While some people may be mildly pro or con on the issue, I can report that Georgia is serene.

    I do wish more citizens of my fair state would be, if not fanatical, at least a little attentive to ordinary things like apostrophe usage and subject-verb agreement. Widespread indifference to the fundamentals of English would seem to be poor soil for English fanaticism to take root in. But maybe I’m naive. Maybe Jason’s English-Only fanatics are lurking all about, organized in “sleeper cells” and hiding themselves among the professionals and students and housewives and laborers of the Peach State, waiting for their moment. Come on down, Jason, I’m sure you can ferret them out for us.

    My guess is that the person who used “liable” for “libel” has a bit of a Georgia twang, pronounces the two words identically, and simply made a substitution typo. (I make them all the time with similar sounding words, and have to fix my errors. If I’m not careful, one can slip through.) Missing the error is not the same as being ignorant of the difference.

    While I’ve seen little evidence of “fanatical” English-Firsters, evidence abounds of statewide fanaticism regarding the football team that shares the campus with the journalism school and newspaper in question. And Jason, I’m pretty sure my Bulldogs can beat your team.

  28. Jason said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    @Tom

    All I’ll say in reply to this is that I’ve never met anyone who got offended by foreign language text (on brochures, ATM instructions, headlines, etc) and who demanded only English be used wasn’t using this position as cover for their general racism and xenophobia.

    Re: english only movement in Georgia: Ten seconds googling reveals that Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, sponsored a bill in 2010 to require driver’s license tests to be conducted only in English, a typical objective of the English only activists. Is that enough “ferreting” for you? You live there, I’m sure you know all about the efforts of James Mills, right?

    The rest of your reply is non-responsive, except, in the spirit of the obnoxious snark you’ve delivered to me, you’re not helping the stereotype by boasting about your football team instead of say, your educational achievement. (Apparently you’re ranked seven. Bully for you. Given what the board of the student newspaper at UGA apparently thinks journalism should involve and what it shouldn’t involve, I’d be very worried about what Georgians are being taught about civics.)

    Contrary to your implication, I’ve got nothing against Georgians in general, just a few random extremists, but you’re helping to persuade me otherwise.

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