Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"What wounds are these?"

     It looks like my 20-year-old is going to spend the summer interning in Washington, D.C.. Concerned parent that I am, on Sunday night, learning the address of the apartment he'll likely share with a pal, I plugged it into Google map and ascertained that, yes, there is a Washington Metro station a convenient five minute walk away. 
     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.
     The verb to wound [WOOND], however, retains its earliest meaning: “to inflict a deliberate 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. 
     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."


  1. The NYT also used "wounded" in the article on the Amtrack crash. At least one commenter made the same critique as you.

    1. And it's still there.
      "CHESTER, Pa. — An Amtrak train, southbound at high speed on Sunday morning, slammed into construction equipment on the tracks near Philadelphia, killing two track workers and wounding more than 30 passengers, the authorities said."

      Someone needs to explain the the Times the meaning of the verb.

  2. I have been following the travails of the DC Metro system in the Washington Post & it appears to make the CTA appear to be well run, that's how bad it is!
    The automatic train control system failed & caused a major collision with fatalities & then all the trains had to be run manually, which made for several close calls.
    Fires in electrical cables, which shut it down.
    Numerous incompetent managers that simply refused to do their jobs & now the third general manager running it in just a year.

  3. I would still quibble with the use of the word wound in this context. Wound refers to injuries that tear or puncture the skin. Did the reporters count non-fatal injuries, distinguishing tears and punctures from bruises, sprains and broken bones?

  4. the difference between injured and wounded in the common parlance as well as print seems well established and accepted. i too felt the awkwardness of the use of wounded in this context and while it could be easily glossed over, i appreciate the effort to examine words their evolution , history, and multiple meanings . i think its well worth the effort to examine language in this way, and very satisfying to hear the NYT changed their copy on line.

  5. "to inflict a deliberate injury" seems right to me, though the word seems to be reserved for describing injuries to the military, police and/or victims of criminal acts these days. A train crash caused by defect or human error doesn't qualify, but what about a wreak with injuries/fatalities caused by a terrorist bomb?

  6. The sense of "wound" as an injury of any sort might be creeping in from medical usage: cuts are referred to as "wounds" even when they've been inflicted for benevolent purposes, quite rightly I think, for the body doesn't distinguish between harm done it for good or for evil.


  7. Insure vs. Ensure is one of my pet peeves, as well. Incorrect usage would not have appeared in a New Yorker issue in the days of Harold Ross and William Shawn.

  8. An interesting and worthy discussion. Those not etymologically inclined might feel it to be breaking a butterfly on a wheel, but an opportunity to take the august Times down a peg should be welcomed by all.

    Beyond Virgil there is precedent for metaphorical usage ("He was wounded by her rejection of his proposal.") that doesn't exactly fit the bill, but in the instant context I favor abiding by the concesus view that a wound is a physical insult deliberately inflicted, ususlly in battle. Examples from literature are manifold. One thinks of Dr. John Watson, who survived his early days in London on a "wound pension" granted for injuries suffered at Maiwand during the second Afghan War.

    Sorry to hear about the Washington METRO. Haven't been there for a while, but used it regularly for a number of years and found it a superior system. If he's going to live anywhere near a station your kid shouldn't get a car. Money and time wasted on parking alone would eat him alive.

    Tom Evans

  9. By any definition, Donald Trump is wounding America. Is it a mortal wound?

  10. Just read about the tweny five year effort to create the first OED. Each word researched endlessly to find its first usuage. Maybe twenty or so examples of historical usage taken from earliest writings to more current usage. The word "protagonist' became the source of months of heated debate, for example. The argument centering on if the word could refer to more than one protaganist. So, Mr. Steinburg, congratulations for upholding the tradition. Btw, the original Oxford dictionary was described to have some large number of tombstone sized books. Of what we might consider onionskin paper. Forgive my old brain, the number escapes me.

  11. Meant each word in dictionary could have as many as twenty odd examples of usage, usually quotes from the research, after the definition.

  12. Trivia regarding Washington Metro...no Googling...when the doors open to a car, there are two tones that sound. They are the first two notes to a famous song. Kind of cool. Anyone know?


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