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

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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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