The New York Times has decided to drop the word "op-ed" from its nomenclature. From now on, the favored term will be "guest essays."
The Times' opinions editor explained in a recent column — or should that be a "recent essay"? — that the advent of online publication has rendered "op-ed" archaic, describing as it does a physical location in a print newspaper: opposite the editorial page. "It is a relic of an older age," wrote the editor, Kathleen Kingsbury.
What gives the Times the right to change the language? Simply this: The Times invented the term "op-ed," back in 1970. If the Times wants to drop the short, punchy term and substitute the willowy, elegant "guest essay," that is the Times' business. Except for one thing: "Op-ed" has passed into general circulation in its half-century of life. It is now a relatively widely recognized generic term for a commentary piece. In popular use, it is scarcely more associated with the Times than the word "Kleenex" is with Kimberly-Clark. (Apologies to Kimberly-Clark.)
The Times' effort to break the shackles of its print-bound past seems a bit misguided, although Star Tribune Opinion prefers the "commentary" label. The origins of "op-ed" should be a source of pride, like Times Square but on a smaller scale. Journalism is full of archaic terms, like "slug," "column," and so forth.
Copy editors work "on the rim" or "in the slot," though the horseshoe-shaped copy desk where they used to sit is a thing of distant memory. When editors kill a story, they "spike" it — and when's the last time any newsroom had a spike? OSHA would see us in court.
Woody Allen's reference to a "devastating satirical piece on the guest essay page of the Times" in the movie "Manhattan" would not have had the same ring to it, or communicated as clearly. ("Manhattan," of course, is anachronistic in itself, depicting a middle-aged man's affair with a teenage girl.)
Language evolves, and new terms come along to supplant the old. To the tradition-minded, some of the new terms sound inelegant: "Content" is nudging "journalism" aside. "Clicks" and "likes" now compete with "circulation." And "readers" are giving way to "uniques."
Those bits of jargon do not have the feel of permanence, any more than "guest essays." Op-eds are here to stay, no matter what the Times does. Or is this whole name change just a gimmick to engage readers? In other words: Is it just click bait?