Thursday, July 12, 2007

Encyclopedia Drew and the Case of the Troublesome Tang

If you pick up a copy of this week's Independent, you might notice an item in the news briefs section that mentions the horrible sulfur stench that's been so tenaciously clinging the area around East Cabrillo Boulevard. (The same subject is addressed in a longer IndyNewsFlash item that went up on Tuesday, in case you're interested.) When the article came across my desk in an earlier form, the reporter had referred to the stink — which, it turns out, is emanating from stagnant water at the bird refuge being steamed up by last week's heat wave — as being a "problematic pong." Confused, I asked three nearby editors if they were familiar with this word — independent from the prefixes "ping," "beer" and "early video game sensation" and instead to mean "a bad smell." No one had, though we could all guess what it meant given its context.

I went to the dictionary and found olfactory sense of "pong" missing from the abridged Webster — that version being the one you don't have to pay for — as well as from the American Heritage Dictionary. had it, finally, defining it as I imagined it might be and giving its origin as "obscure."

Good to know it exists, I decided, and curious how it somehow escaped my notice for twenty-five years, but I felt it should be substituted with something the average newspaper-reader would know. Statistically, if four people who work at the paper had never heard of it, four randoms who just read said publication might not either. Worse yet, I worried it might be mistaken for a typo for "pond," since it was a body of water that made the stink to begin with.

Though everyone concerned agreed that the alliteration of "problematic pong" should be preserved, but I lost the ultimate vote and the chosen replacement was "troublesome tang." I am not particularly happy about this, in part because I felt "offending odor" worked just as well but also that olfactory sensations are not the first one might associate with the word "tang." Add to that the infinitely worse pairing with "troublesome," and I at least get an immediate mental picture that's very disturbing. Of course, if one really did have a troublesome tang, bad smells might a major factor in that trouble. I just hope I wouldn't have to print a news story about it.

In any case, if you read the brief and wondered why the hell that phrase in particular was chosen, I thought I'd offer an explanation.


  1. They encourage alliteration? Don't you find that obnoxious?

    In all honesty, the institutionalized use of alliteration is a major reason why journalism never appealed to me as a writer.

  2. i think alliteration is cool.