Saturday, January 21, 2012

Double Meanings

Today we discuss the hazards of words with double meanings – especially when those words are read by under-caffeinated readers.

January 19, 2012 was the 203rd anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. Since about 1949, an anonymous visitor dressed in black has commemorated the writer’s birthday by leaving three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on Poe’s Baltimore grave. However, no such visitor has appeared in the past three years, leading many to wonder if the “Poe Toaster” has fallen ill or died. Perhaps he simply decided to quietly end the tradition on Poe’s 200th birthday in 2009, since 200 is such a nice, round number. We may never know.

Naturally, the Poe Toaster’s non-appearance and the subsequent speculation surrounding it became a news item. The first link I saw was this one on the Yahoo! homepage:

Mysterious Edgar Allan Poe toaster vanishes and fans lament

At the time, I was eating breakfast (toast with jam, as a matter of fact) and was only about half-awake. I’d forgotten about the so-called “Poe Toaster”, so the first thought out of my sleepy little brain was, “Huh. Who would have thought that a toaster had fans, even if it did belong to Edgar Allan Poe?”

Of course, ‘toaster,’ even in the lower case, referred to the man in black who ‘toasted’ Poe on his birthday – not Edgar’s old kitchen appliance. Had the writer capitalized ‘toaster’ or placed it in quotes, as in the actual headline of the story below, the meaning would have been clearer:
Poe fans call an end to 'Toaster' tradition
A Yahoo! editor may have had similar thoughts. Later in the day, the link was changed to read:
Nevermore? Poe grave 'Toaster' vanishes
The Baltimore Sun used this headline:
Tradition of Poe Toaster may be nevermore
Even as we lament the passing of an intriguing tradition, let’s remember why it’s so important for writers to be clear and accurate. You never know what state of mind your reader is bringing to the table…

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