I was amused to see “CQ” prominently displayed on the Sacramento Bee’s online home page this morning. Why? Because it reminded me of my years as a Bee copy editor and the knowledge that the road to public embarrassment is often paved with best of intentions. Copy editors are supposed to remove errors from stories, not insert them. Yet there are so many ways to blunder when you’re rushing to put out the newspaper – or the first draft of history, as we under-appreciated wordsmiths liked to say.
The Bee’s top teaser story was about a Folsom woman’s nine-day ordeal after she was injured while hiking in Sierra National Forest. Beneath the headline was a photo of the woman, Miyuki Harwood. Unfortunately, her name in the caption came out this way: Miyuki HarwoodCQ.
Among journalists, “cq,” written with or without capital letters, is an age-old notation that indicates the preceding word is correctly spelled. This eliminates the need for unpleasant editors to yell across the newsroom: “Has this name been cq’ed?” Typically, “cq” is typed into computer copy with a style code designed to keep it from being set in type. I assume a copy editor forget to insert the style code or overlooked its omission by the reporter.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that many non-journalists are unfamiliar with the “cq” notation and wonder what it stands for. So do I. Several journalism sites online say it’s an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “cadit quaestio,” which means “the question falls,” or less literally, “the argument collapses.” The term is used in legal circles to suggest that no further argument is needed and the issue is settled.
Neither of my desk dictionaries makes this connection. “CQ” is defined either as a military abbreviation for change of quarters or as a signal given by radio amateurs, inviting others to enter into communication. I prefer to think of “cq” as an in-joke concocted by inebriated editors long ago. It makes as much sense as journalistic locutions like “lede” for the first paragraph of a story, “hed” for headline and “htk” for “ hed to kum,” meaning the headline will be written when the copy editor sobers up.
While computers have been a godsend for copy editors, especially for fact-checking, they are not fail-safe. Forget a tiny symbol, and you add CQ to a person’s name. Rely on spellcheck automatic corrections and get ready to do some explaining. I think it was the Fresno Bee that stumbled years ago when it decided to refer to blacks as African Americans. An automatic change was programmed into its computers. Before long, it ran a story about the finances of a prominent company, noting “the company has been in the African American for a decade.” Oops, make that “in the black.”
In the New York Times Sunday, writer Judith Newman wrote about the perils of relying on auto-fill to complete names and information after just a few keystrokes. She detailed horror stories of nasty notes going inadvertently to one’s boss or sexually explicit invitations going astray. One woman thought she was sexting her husband until her daughter’s charismatic Christian babysitter inquired why she was sending such notes to him.