November 28, 2000
Susanne Sheifer wrote:
I keep coming across a word that doesn't make it into the dictionary. It is very specific to the journalism world and dates back to earlier days of newspaper publishing. The word is lede, and it refers to the opening lines of a newspaper article, also called the "lead." It is used in alerting the printer to them but distinguishes them from the word "lead" (Pb), since that metal was used in the printing of the ink. The two homophones needed to be distinguished, and hence the variant spelling lede was invented. I'm a little hazy on all of this, but it seems that the word has survived into the computer age and is still used by some journalists. Do you have any info on this?
Your explanation is good as far as it goes (thanks for doing part of my work), but to fill in the gaps I contacted Evan Jenkins, editor-in-residence at the Columbia University School of Journalism. (I highly recommend his Web site, Language Corner.) What he told me was that your explanation of lede as it's used in modern journalism is correct--it's "lead" (rhymes with greed)--the first, or leading, paragraph--spelled phonetically to avoid confusion with "lead" (rhymes with led), which is more or less what type was made of once it replaced wooden type in the 19th century. A "lead" (hear led) was also a thin strip of metal used to put space between lines of type, an act referred to as "leading" (sometimes spelled "ledding"). That last word persists today even though metal type is long gone in most places. In modern times, "leading" refers to the spacing between lines of type in phototypeset or computer-generated typeset material. "Leading out" refers to the insertion of extra spacing between lines.
In journalistic use, the "lead" is the first sentence or the first paragraph of a magazine or newspaper article. It can summarize the article, set the scene, or establish the mood of the story. The term is also used in broadcasting. For example, a "segue lead" is a transition to a related story, and a "quote lead" is a quotation.
The "lead" can also be the main or "lead(ing) article," usually appearing on the first page of a magazine, though letters to the editor and other features can precede it. In a newspaper, the "lead(ing) article" is often at the far right of page one, but each separate section can have its own main article. The "off-lead" is the second most prominent article, usually on the far left side. "Leader" (or "leder") is another term for the main article, a term used especially by The Wall Street Journal. In England, "leader" or "lead(ing) article" has a different meaning--it's a newspaper editorial.
The use of the word "lead" to mean 'the main article' is first recorded in 1927, though "lead-off" in the same sense dates from the end of the 19th century. The term "leading article" in the British sense of 'a newspaper editorial' dates from about 1807, and "leader" in this sense is first recorded in 1837. "Leader" in the sense 'the main article' is an entry in Berrey and Van Den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang (1942).
The spelling "lede" was not invented by journalists. This spelling (and several other variants) was used for all meanings of the noun and verb up through the 1500s; the spelling "leade" or "lead" starts appearing at this time.
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