Q&A: “Bury the lead” or “bury the lede”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking the lede…

Q: Hi AWC, how was your week?

A: Great thanks. Did you do anything interesting?

Q: Umm… I saw a movie.

A: Oh really? What was it?

Q: Hmmm, just whatever they were showing on the plane.

A: Wait, what? You went on a plane?

Q: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.

A: Haha. Nice work burying the lede…

Q: How did you know about that? It was a dog sitting mishap years ago – not my fault, I swear!

A: Um.

Q: Oh, wait. “Bury the LEDE”? Ahem. Wait. What’s a lede? I thought the expression was to “bury the lead” – as in burying the lead information in a news story much further down?

A: You’ve got the definition correct. But the original idiom is “bury the lede”.

Q: Lede???

A: Shall we explain?

Q: Yes. But most important information first please.

A: Haha, sure. The term did indeed come from journalists – ensuring the main news of a story was communicated upfront. This “important stuff up top” is a principle that industry often calls the “inverted pyramid”.

Q: I think I visited that on my trip to Egypt.

A: Unlikely.

Q: So, why didn’t they just call it the “lead”?

A: It WAS originally the lead – and in lots of newsrooms it continues to be “lead”. But particularly in US newspapers, the word “lede” emerged somewhere between the late 1940s and early 1960s – fully embraced in the industry by the 1970s.

Q: Wow, that’s quite late. I assumed “lede” was from Latin?

A: Nope. It was an invented word, with two theories for its existence. The first was to avoid confusion with the pieces of “lead” metal placed in the linotype printing presses.

Q: Even though the two words sound different?

A: Sure, but instructions were typically written, so “lead” vs “lead” doesn’t look any different! We actually discussed the many quirks of the word “lead” – including the common confusion with “led” – on a previous Q&A.

Q: So we did. Okay, so they called it a “lede” simply to know it wasn’t the metal “lead”?

A: That’s one theory. The irony being that it came along as the industry switched to computers and lead was no longer used in this way.

Q: That IS ironic. Or, lead-ic.

A: Quite. So, the other theory is much simpler and relates to journalists’ love of weird jargon – e.g., “nut graf”, “dek” and “hed”. 

Q: Whaaaa?

A: Google them later. In short, journos love weird spellings mainly because they stand out clearly as instructions for proofing etc.

Q: Hmmm okay. So nothing to do with pieces of lead?

A: In this theory, no. At the top of a new story, they would write “NU LEDE” – purposefully skewing the spelling of “NEW LEAD” to make it very clear. It’s all part of this crazy newsroom lingo.

Q: Okay, sure. So “lede” is all just some journalism in-joke?

A: Yep. But remember, even relating to journalism, the word “lede” still gets listed in most dictionaries as simply a mostly American alternative to “lead”.

Q: Aha! So, “bury the lead” is also correct!

A: Well, sort of. The idiom originated in the newsroom, but has since spilled out to everyday situations – used any time where we don’t lead with the most important information.

Q: Exactly! I guess it makes sense to use “bury the lede” if you’re talking about a news story. But everything else, surely not!

A: But remember what we always say about idioms?

Q: You mean that thing about them being the rockstars of the English language and not caring about rules?

A: Oh, haha, we do say that. But no, we mean the OTHER thing.

Q: Oh, you mean how idioms are like fossils?

A: Yes! In the sense that they perfectly preserve whatever spelling or syntax was around at the time – even if everything around it erodes afterwards.

Q: Hmmm yeah. 

A: So based on that, we believe the idiom should really remain as “bury the lede” for everything. However we do acknowledge that “bury the lead” is a popular alternative. It’s just not technically or historically correct.

Q: So, if I use “bury the lead” I will have lots of journos and grammar purists thinking I’m an idiot. And if I use “bury the lede” I’ll have a bunch of other people who think I’ve spelt “lead” wrong?

A: Yeah, pretty much. You simply have to decide if you want to upset one group or confuse the other. We’d always say to err on the side of “bury the lede” – especially if the context is a news story.

Q: But I’m also likely to see “bury the lead”, especially outside America?

A: That’s right.

Q: Thanks for the explanation. Now, we should really get out of this tank filled with sharks and lasers…

A: Good idea. We really buried the lede on that one!


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