On Monday morning, the New York Times ran a front page story thoroughly describing what a godawful mess the Washington Metro has become, after years of managerial bungling and deferred maintenance. Original cars from when the system opened in 1976 are still in use. The only recourse might be to shut down stretches of the system for months at a time, paralyzing the city.
The article recounted fatal crashes and shirked safety standards. My first thought was, "We'll have to get him a car." Though cars have accidents too, far more than transit systems do, and, thinking of Washington traffic, decided it is probably better to take our chances with the Metro.
Toward the end, the story, written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos, there is a description of a 2009 collision that woke up dozing legislators, noting that "eight riders and a train operator were killed and dozens were wounded." Later, of another collision: "No one was wounded, but the track defect that caused the derailment had been detected a month earlier."
Does anything pop out at you from those two sentences? For me, it was the word "wounded." I always thought of wounds as something that happen to soldiers in battle. Riders hurt by mishaps on crumbling transit system are "injured."
I wanted to shake it off—everybody hates a fusspot—but being a writer is nothing if not about sweating the details. Though I realize that the Times can commit howling errors, like any other newspaper—I once saw a front page where they dropped the dateline--it still seemed something worth pointing out.
Trudging upstairs, coffee in hand, I started to compose my polite note. Not to the public editor, that would seem like ratting out the reporters for a minor lapse. We're all cooking in the same pot. Write to the reporters themselves. First, praise for the interesting story. Then, a reluctant mention of the topic at hand...
But first, I plugged "wound" into my online dictionary. I have a personal rule that most people who point out errors are themselves wrong, leaping to draw attention to the perceived flaw without ever checking to determine that they are correct. The nameless iMac dictionary defined the verb "wound" as: "inflict an injury on." Period. And while their examples are both military, "the sergeant was seriously wounded," for the verb, and the adjective, "a wounded soldier," there is nothing to exclude the word from being used to describe victims of a wheezing train system soon to be ferrying my beloved child.
Language changes. Perhaps we're seeing a word in transition. Daniel Webster's 1828 dictionary endorses my meaning, "To hurt by violence."
But the full 1933 Oxford English Dictionary definition begins, "A hurt caused by the laceration or separation of the tissues of the body by a hard or sharp instrument, a bullet, etc.; an external injury." and traces it back more than a thousand years, to Beowulf, "da sio wund ongon,"
That could in theory mean flying glass in a train accident caused by bungling bureaucrats. Seeking something more current than the 1930s, I went on-line and found confirmation from an impressive grammar blog called Daily Writing Tips:
"In modern usage, the noun wound [WOOND] refers to any injury that tears the flesh.Underline "deliberate." So the Times story is indeed on shaky ground, at least using this authority. People have a tendency to stop collecting evidence once they've validated what they already believe, and I'm no different, particularly since I have my own work to get to this morning.
The verb to wound [WOOND], however, retains its earliest meaning: “to inflict a deliberate injury that tears the flesh.”
I wasn't going to bother writing to the reporters—who'd welcome that email? I tried to proceed with my day, but felt like I was being timid. "The secret wound lives on within the breast," as Virgil writes. So I dashed off notes to the reporters and, to my surprise, heard back almost immediately from Stolberg, who said that the mistake wasn't theirs—they did use "injure"—but the harm to the article was inflicted by some spinning gear elsewhere in the vast New York Times mechanism. She had already made inquiries, and it was quickly fixed in the on-line version. So I'm not the only person sensitive to these nuances. Now if we could only get The New Yorker to stop saying "insure" when they should say "ensure."
Enough. Having made my share of blunders in print, I hope I haven't belabored this small point too tediously. As Shakespeare writes: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound."