Getting The Names Right

The first rule of journalism, wrote Robert Ruark, is to “spell the names right.” Ruark, one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished journalists, was correct then and it’s still true today. Alas, fewer and fewer writers, editors and so-called journalists seem to have any idea of either how to do this, or why it’s even important.

The most immediate reason — and here I speak from experience — is that the surest way for a reporter to provoke an enraged phone call to his boss is to spell someone’s name wrong. Conversely, you can write some pretty negative things, but spell the name right and chances are he won’t be on the phone to his lawyer.

Accuracy is vital to credibility in main-stream journalism, but it is even more so in the world of gun collecting, where accurate information is the best defense against being taken — deliberately or accidentally — by the increasing number of charlatans who are loose in the world. I believe it was John T. Amber who once advised collectors to “buy one book for every gun,” increasing their private reference library as they expand their gun collection.

As with Ruark, this is still excellent advice. Unfortunately, the days when you could buy a reference book published by Stackpole or Alfred A. Knopf, and place your trust in the publisher’s own reputation for quality, are quickly disappearing. The advent of desk-top publishing back in the 1990s gave rise to any number of small publishers who appear out of nowhere, put together a book or two and disappear just as quickly.

For most of these, the prospect of being a publisher, or having a book to their name, are the most important considerations, and details such as learning how to spell, how to put a sentence together or how to research names and dates, are unimportant.

Engraving Custom rifles

Photograph courtesy of Johann Fanzoj, Ferlach, Austria

This particular tirade was prompted by reading a book — a very expensive and elaborately produced book — that purports to be authoritative, credible and accurate, full of vital information for collectors such as models, variations, serial numbers, dates and all the other arcana so critical to intelligent collecting.

Possibly, much of the information in the book is accurate. One would hope so. Unfortunately, where my own knowledge of a particular subject applies, I found mistake after mistake, many so elementary that any beginning reporter would have been fired in the days of professional journalism.

For example, the name Griffin & Howe: Throughout, they spell it “Griffen” — even on pages that show a photograph of the name engraved (and spelt correctly) on a rifle. They refer to “Westley & Richards,” or “W&R” cartridges. A.O. Niedner is repeatedly spelled “Neidner” —again, even when there is a photo of engraving with the correct spelling.

With all of these elementary errors, why should I not believe every other chapter contains equal inaccuracies?

This is not just a failure of the authors but, more particularly, of the alleged editor, who seemed more intent on coming up with flippant chapter names than with anything as mundane as getting the facts straight. This throws the whole value of the book, intended as an historically comprehensive and accurate reference, into serious doubt. As well, the fact that it has no index whatever makes it almost worthless as a professional reference work.

Everyone makes mistakes. Jack O’Connor, another journalistic icon of our little world, for 30 years and in many books, consistently misspelled Niedner (Neidner) and a later writer, who put together a book on hunting cartridges in the early 1980s, himself misspelled O’Connor’s name throughout (O’Conner.)

Seymour Griffin 1903 Springfield rifle
Photo Courtesy Rick Hacker

With the internet, such journalistic deterioration has become an epidemic, not just an occasional error. It is becoming increasingly more difficult, not less, to crosscheck facts and confirm such basic information as dates and spellings, much less more arcane stuff such as engraving patterns or action lengths.

In an era when outright lies are termed “alternative facts,” buyers of high-dollar guns who believe they are making an investment need to pay closer attention than ever to the quality of their information, and the qualifications of the sellers. A hint: If they can’t even spell the names right, then I suggest you run fast and take your check book with you.–Terry Wieland

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