Link of the Week: A Pronouncing Vocabulary

Time now for another resource on pronunciation, the news announcer’s abiding obsession.

For this one, you have to set your wayback machine to 1857, the publication date of Elias Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary of Geographical and Personal Names, available (in the public domain) through Google Books. As the name suggests, this 205 page work contains extensive lists of pronunciations for place names, then personal names, then a shorter catalog of scriptural names. Because of its long-ago publication date, the book–especially the personal names part–is useful mainly for names of note at or prior to the mid-nineteenth century. It also uses an obsolete typographic phonography system (lots of funny Greek-looking characters) that is a little hard to decipher at first, but that is well-explained in the introduction and in a summary table immediately following.

For all its limitations, I find Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary a handy resource for names and places that often appear without pronunciations in dictionaries and encyclopedias, or without authority in many of the online sources I’ll be mentioning in future entries.

Link of the Week: Google Translate

One of Google’s many boons to foreign reporting has been its Google Translate service. There are several ways to access it. Google searches, for example, include a “Translate” link for any website that’s detected as being in a foreign language. And if you use Google Toolbar in your browser, it will put a ‘Translate’ control bar at the top of any page you visit that’s detected as being in a foreign language (including some that aren’t really foreign).

If neither of those cases apply to you, you can just go to the Google Translate page and type the URL of the foreign language website into the text box. Pick the source language (or let Google figure it out automagically) and your language, and POW, you have what’s usually a pretty good machine translation of the material. You can also type free-form text into the box (‘Where is the bathroom?’) and Google will translate that (‘Waar is de badkamer?’), adding a handy ‘Listen’ button so you can hear the pronunciation.

All this convenience and power comes with one big red-flag caution: It’s still a machine translation, which means it works well on simple, straightforward phrases, but is terrible at translating slang, idiom, and cultural context.

In the journalistic context, that means you can use Google Translate (or other machine translators) to get the gist of a foreign-language article and decide whether to pursue it further. But if you want to use any facts or quotes, machine translation isn’t good enough. For that, you’ll still (as of this writing) need to find a real, live fluent speaker of the language to translate it for you.

Link of the Week: Measuring Worth

I now unveil one of my all-time favorite sites. It’s something I only use occasionally in my current deadline news job. But I used to use it all the time when I made historical documentaries. And you could get lost for hours just playing with numbers on the site.

So with that buildup, what is it?

Measuring Worth is the latest incarnation of an online calculator run by two University of Illinois economics professors. The site lets you put in a currency amount from any year back to 1774, and convert that to the value in any other year. Most commonly, you’d use it to figure out, for example, what $30 in 1910 is worth today. The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as $710. That’s just the figure calculated using the Consumer Price Index. But the authors’ basic calculator gives you five other measures (GDP deflator, comparative payment for unskilled labor, etc.) which generate a figure as high as $13,200 (for relative share of GDP). It can also handle various foreign currencies and various other ways of calculating relative value.

So, unfortunately, while Measuring Worth a great tool, there’s a learning curve (handy essays included) to figuring out what all the numbers mean and which is appropriate for your purpose. But if you need to calculate the historical Value of a Dollar (the site’s original name), this is the tool for the job.

Names in ledes: Famous, or not so much?

Editing stories from wire services and other outside sources often means ‘translating’ the item from the audience it was written for (Cleveland general audience, members of the military, Italians, etc.) to our particular niche audience, the LGBT community.

I’ve already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is ‘to proper noun, or not to proper noun.’

In general, you should only include the name of someone or something in the lede if it is a household name to your audience. Otherwise, it’s usually best to substitute some kind of generic descriptor and come back to the proper name in the second or third sentence.

That means, for example, that you can always use “President Obama” in the lede without further ado. But you probably wouldn’t want to use “the Human Rights Campaign” in your lede. In that case, you’d say “A gay rights group is lobbying the White House blah blah blah” in the lede, and use the group’s name in the second sentence.

I say you wouldn’t put HRC’s name in your lede. But we probably would, because virtually everyone in our LGBT audience has heard of it. On the other hand, when we’re adapting a story from the local paper in Columbia, South Carolina and it puts “State Rep. Todd Rutherford” in its lede, we’d probably ‘translate’ that by saying “a South Carolina lawmaker” in our lede, and using his proper name further down.

In some cases, a generic descriptor is too generic to put in the lede. Consider this wire service lede:

(Boston, MA) — Members of the Governor’s Council are criticizing Governor Deval Patrick’s latest selection for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Fine for a Massachusetts audience, which hears about the ‘Governor’s Council’ all the time. The Council is an elected advisory body–but that seemed too vague to put in the lede. On the other hand, ‘Massachusetts Governor’s Council’ isn’t so big a puzzler that it’s what we call a ‘show-stopper’ (causing the audience to loose the thread of the story), so I put that in the lede, and used ‘elected advisory board’ as the subject of the second sentence.

Then there’s the middle ground: a name that’s kinda-sorta familiar to your audience, is to use the name in the lede, but add a descriptor before it. So: not just “Silvio Berlusconi” as the AFP dispatch from Rome might have it, but “Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Likewise, “California Governor Jerry Brown,” “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Apple C-E-O Steve Jobs,” and so on.

Link of the Week: British Isles-Common Confusions

England, British Isles, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Scotland… what is what, over there, off the coast of France, anyway?

Americans like me sometimes have a hard time sorting out what proper name applies to which geographical entity. This brief web page explains it all clearly and concisely, with maps.

Incidentally, those five names at the start of this entry all refer to distinct, but in some cases overlapping, entities.

Their system vs. ours

I’d like to say a few words about the differences between parliamentary democracies, such as they have in the UK, Canada, and most other places in the world, and presidential republics like we have in the US. I’d like to say a few words, but it’s pretty hard, because the differences are many and complex — worthy of the sort of lengthy essay one might find on Wikipedia.

But because the topic comes up constantly in my work (reporting on gay-related bills passing through foreign parliaments) and because college poli sci classes seem to do an awfully bad job of explaining this stuff to students who become my interns, I want to highlight just a couple of the principal differences between the two systems — in very brief outline.

The main difference between the two systems of government is that parliamentary democracies have no separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. That is, the majority party (or coalition of parties) in Parliament is the government, and foreign newspapers use the terms “the government” and “majority party(s)” interchangeably. Typically, the government is led by a Prime Minister with the support of a bunch of cabinet ministers* (in charge of defense, foreign relations, health services and so on), all of whom are also voting members of parliament.

The members of the cabinet are usually referred to as “front-benchers,” because that’s where they sit in the Parliament. The minority or “opposition” parties (or “opposition coalition”) usually assemble a team of leaders or experts on all the cabinet ministries, who are referred to as “shadow ministers” or “critics” (Shadow Health Minister or Health Critic, etc.) Because of their seating location in Parliament, these opposition leaders are collectively referred to as “back-benchers.”

I could go on and on about how these differences affect the political system, how bills pass, and so forth (although there’s considerable variation from country to country), but I’ll stop here. I’ll probably add other pertinent observations later, as they arise in my work.

*I hope it goes without saying that in the context of a government, “minister” does not refer to a member of the clergy. A government minister in a parliamentary system corresponds to a cabinet secretary in the US system: (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, etc.)

Mind the table

In American British journalistic prose, to “table” a bill, amendment or other measure is to offer or propose it. But in British American usage, to “table” a measure means to suspend consideration (i.e. to “shelve” it). In other words, “table” has more or less opposite meanings in the UK and America. Many an editorial ship has crashed on this particular shoal. Beware, and make sure that when you see this word, you know whether your source is British or American.

World Time on your desktop

In an earlier entry, I mentioned that I also keep track of time around the world using a desktop application. Before I forget to name it, here it is.

It’s called, cleverly, World Time 6, and it’s full-featured freeware from In addition to letting you set up a floating bar with the correct time for as many time zones as screen real estate will allow, World Time also includes repeating alarms, countdown clocks, a stopwatch, and a time calculator.

It works very well for me, but a few cautions are in order. is just a hardworking guy in British Columbia. While he has not completely abandoned World Time, he has not updated it in four years. The time zone database it comes with is somewhat out of date, but PawPrint provides all the software tools you need to update time zone offsets and daylight time dates as they change… that is, if you can figure out how to use those tools (I was able to).

Also, the built-in program that synchronizes your computer clock to any one of dozens of ‘atomic clock’ time servers does not play well with Windows XP. I advise you to disable it, especially since Windows XP and Vista provide this synchronization built-in. There are also complaints on World Time’s forums that the program has other compatibility problems with Windows Vista.

Having said all that, if you’re even a little bit handy with computers and you want a desktop World Time program, this full-featured item is certainly worth a try, especially at the price of $0.

‘Peer’ = Member of House of Lords

In British journalistic usage, ‘peer’ usually means a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.

Technically, of course, ‘peer’ means any one of several ranks of titled nobility, which may or may not include membership in the House of Lords. But for the most part, the UK press uses the term as shorthand for the political office.

Link of the Week:

Because Sirius OutQ News covers a lot of international LGBT news, we have stringers all over the world, and I constantly need to know what time it is where my correspondents are (don’t want to be ringing the phone in Melbourne at 3 a.m!). One of the tools I use to figure out the complications of calculating the time elsewhere (time zones, the international date line, daylight savings time) is (I also use a piece of desktop software for my most commonly used time zones. More on that in a later entry.)

WorldTimeServer provides the correct time anywhere in the world, taking daylight time, half-hour offsets, and the date line accurately into account. The site also offers time zone calculators to help you set up meetings at a future date and time, embeddable clocks for your website, and other handy tools. They make their money through advertising, and by selling subscriptions to their database to companies that need up-to-date information on ever-changing local time zones around the world (think travel agencies, airlines, etc.).

How much is that in real money?

One more thing about converting foreign currencies to local in news stories: Sometimes you can just convert the foreign amount and treat it as if it were local money.

Soon Yen pays about a dollar-sixty to ride the bus into town every day.

In other situations, where you’re talking about large cash amounts that would obviously have been transacted in the foreign currency, it’s wise to subtly signal that you’ve converted.

Britain’s Royal Air Force has settled an anti-gay discrimination lawsuit, offering a payout to a former sergeant major worth more than 100-thousand dollars.

The use of the word “worth” indicates that the settlement was equivalent to $100,000, rather than $100,000 in crisp greenbacks. By the way, you can also use “equivalent to” with the same effect.

Link of the Week: Economist Country Briefings

Whenever I need a quick, authoritative summary of a country’s political, economic and social system, I turn to the Country Briefings at In addition to a listing of recent The Economist articles on the country, these briefings include a factsheet, economic data on the country, a short history of the nation, and summary descriptions of the country’s political and economic system. Not every country in the world is covered, but the 80 or so largest are.

Citing foreign press agencies

When citing a foreign wire service, I find it best to use an English language reference. Sometimes that’s the agency’s name in translation. “Agence France-Presse” (AFP) becomes “the French Press Agency,” and “Deutsche Presse Agentur” (DPA) becomes “the German Press Agency.” Or sometimes it’s the name in the original language, with an English description tacked on: “The Xinhua state-controlled news service,” in a story where it’s already established we’re talking about China.

And note that, as in the last example, it’s important to indicate with a word or two (‘state-controlled’, ‘Christian conservative’, etc.) any possible bias a news service (or other source) might have.

‘Tory’ = Conservative

A ‘Tory’ is a member of the Conservative Party in Britain or Canada.

This is not to be confused with a politician who is simply philosophically conservative (small ‘c’). It only applies to a member of the Conservative (big ‘C’) Party.