I was scarcely caffeinated this morning when I was braced by a challenge on Twitter: “why does the Sun use the pretentious and suburban ‘row home’ instead of the correct Baltimore term ‘rowhouse’?”
Rowhouse is in The Sun’s stylebook. I put it there, even though the spell-check, over which I have no control, flags it every time. Row home appears to be beloved of real estate agents and people who write about real estate, because home is ever so much more genteel and attractive than the stark, bare house. Row home creeps in, as does home for house. I can’t be everywhere at once. (Besides, articles about home decor, especially the ones that go on about providing “a pop of color” to a room, make me twitch.)
Keeping to correct local parlance is treacherous. John Plunkett, a former assistant managing editor who oversaw the copy desk, deplored the appearance of stoop in the paper. Baltimore rowhouses have steps, he insisted. Stoops are in New York, the word carried into Baltimore by auslander reporters who know no better. But I was speedily informed that there are sections of Baltimore in which stoop is indigenous dialect. Uniformity never comes without a struggle.
Fells Point is spelled variously as Fells Point and Fell’s Point, the latter favored by the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point. The apostrophe was a late arrival in English, as David Crystal explains in Making a Point, cropping up in late sixteenth century. “Grammarians and printers were still trying to work out what the relevant rules were even at the end of the nineteenth century,” he writes. “They were not entirely successful.” Sun house style is Fells Point. Go home.
A few years ago, we tangled ourselves up over South Baltimore. South Baltimore is a recognized section of the city, like West Baltimore, East Baltimore, North Baltimore, Southwest Baltimore, and Northeast Baltimore. But it is also the name of a single neighborhood south of Federal Hill. We struggled to differentiate to avoid confusion. But when we wrote about southern Baltimore, I got letters from old-timers dismissing me as a greenhorn. So now we just write South Baltimore all the time and leave it to the reader to figure it out.
When I was a slot editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, they came to me about a location variously described as Caesar Creek, Caesar’s Creek, and Caesars Creek. All three variants appeared in signage and in various state and local documents. They asked me what to do.
I moved to Baltimore.
Out of the frying pan …