Most people are not so fortunate as to ever be quoted in the New York Times. So it almost goes without saying that should you ever find yourself in such a unique position, be sure to make it count.
Surely, “make it count” means different things to different people, but to me, it means never miss an opportunity to make someone groan (specifically, as the result of a terrible pun).
There, that’s it. That’s my advice. Which brings me the story of someone who failed to heed it. Specifically, I refer to the contents of an article that appeared in the New York Times today titled With Proposed Rail Expansion, Northwest Confronts Its Clean Image. It is all about shipping fossil fuels by rail from the interior of the continent through the Pacific Northwest — more specifically, coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to Pacific port cities:
Mile-long trains from the coal mines of Wyoming already run daily, and the load could more than double if three big proposed export terminals gain approval and financing.
The expected outrage has ensued.
One quote from the article in particular caught my attention:
Because of a constriction point on the rail grid known as the Spokane Funnel, every one of those energy trains on the horizon — 60 a day by some estimates, empty and full — would come right through the middle of Spokane, Washington’s second-largest city, with a population of 209,000.
“Spokane is the canary in the mine,” said Ken Casavant, a professor of economics and the director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute at Washington State University. “They’re in the middle.”
tl;dr Casavant managed to botch his quote in the paper of record not once, but twice-over.
First, the phrase “canary in the mine” has nothing to do with being in the middle. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: the Times separated the two clauses, so let’s assume he didn’t mean for them to be linked in quite the way they appear in print.
Second, “canary in the mine” might technically convey the message Casavant wished to communicate, but it is simply incorrect in any context.* What he meant to say is “canary in the coal mine.” And to make things worse, this was not just any context: this was an article literally about mines… and not just any mines — coal mines!
Really, this article about enabling energy companies to dig up all the coal and tar sands so we can burn them just made me sad, but I’ve written about what a terrible idea all that is already. So instead I decided to focus on the botched pun. What a huge waste of an opportunity.
*Don’t believe me? Compare the number of search results on Google:
Hurrah for the scientific method!