[Note: This post was published on November 23rd, but apparently some error caused it to return to draft status. It should now be properly visible.]
Late in this year’s election cycle, I came across an article that used a strange spelling: lede for a word that is traditionally spelled lead.
I first assumed it was a simple typo, but seeing it used twice in two sentences prompted me to look a bit deeper.
If the context doesn’t make it clear, the meaning of this lede (rhymes with “seed”) can be quickly uncovered: it’s an alternative spelling for lead, the important point of a news article, as in “the lede in Johnson’s story is that merchants are offering even greater incentives to shop on Black Friday than in previous years.” If an article doesn’t get to that important piece of information right away, traditionally within the first two sentences or so, it might be said to have “buried the lead.”
This unusual spelling (“lede“) is both old and new. It’s old because it draws upon the older phonetic spelling of lead, which more of less fell out of fashion when we left Middle English behind (beginning around the early 16th century). It’s new because the word was only pressed into service in this way within the past half century or so.
The received wisdom states that the lede spelling came into use in newsrooms to distinguish lead (rhymes with “heed”) from lead (rhymes with “head”). When written out, the journalistic lead (lede) can be easily confused with typographic lead (they’re homographs: words that are written the same but might — and in this case do — sound different).
This alternative spelling hasn’t caught on enough outside of journalistic jargon to make it into many dictionaries yet. OED hasn’t noted lede, nor has ODO. AHD and Merriam-Webster both include it, however, as does the inconsistent Dictionary.com. The etymology is fuzzy from the outset. Webster’s cites first use from 1976; Dictionary.com from 1965 (and AHD, at least online, not at all). But no online source offers an actual citation, making them all suspect. Obviously the word is in circulation, but it’s difficult to tell how much traction it has. I’m willing to accept that the word has been in use in this form for close to 50 years, but there’s a lack of hard evidence to prove it.
I’m able to easily find solid references online from the past five years, sketchier ones back to about 2000; beyond that it’s more difficult. (Have you ever tried doing research on a homograph online? I wish you luck, my friends!) Garner offers a solid citation for lede from 2002, and cautions that if used at all it should be identified as industry jargon. It seems a telling omission that the word doesn’t even appear in the AP Stylebook. Based on the frequency of use and overall tone of many references, the non-journalist is forced to question whether or not the lede spelling is common even in most journalistic circles (any reporters and newspaper editors out there? feel free to jump in).
For the sake of clarity, I feel safe recommending that non-journalists avoid using the lede spelling entirely. The support for that spelling is extremely weak. If you’re working in journalism, however, you have more options. Internally, it will depend on the standards of your organization: some will tolerate, prefer, or even expect the lede spelling; others will not. Even as a journalist, however, it’s probably a good idea to restrict the use of this spelling to internal communications; when you’re writing for public consumption (as with the article in The Atlantic that opened this post), it’s best to use the traditional and standard lead spelling.
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As an odd follow-on to those interested in some additional controversy involving lede, consider taking a look at this discussion on Wikipedia. It generates a lot more smoke and heat than light, but reveals how people can become very persnickety and emotional over this kind of issue.