I have no idea what they teach in journalism these days, but, back in the day, two of the things we learned involving ledes – the opening sentence of a news or feature article – were that question ledes were a risky way to begin and never, ever start an article with “If you don’t like (fill in the blank), this isn’t for you.”
The reasoning behind both is that they leave way too much permission to just stop there and read no more, which is the exact opposite of what a good lede should do.
This ingrained teaching is why I have buried the lede to this column under three paragraphs. What I really want to know is: Do you get the wondering “whys” caught in your brain to the point that you just have to try to puzzle it out – even when there is no real answer – or you feel you’ll go crazy?
Well, I do. Maybe it’s the journalism training, but I know there are other professions out there that are just as quizzical. In the quiet moments of the past two weeks, I have been obsessing about tuna fish.
What do you think of when you hear the words “tuna fish?” I’m betting many, many of you have visions of that can (now available in pouches) of StarKist, Bubble Bee or Chicken of the Sea tuna mixed with mayonnaise, pickle, a dash of lemon juice, salt, pepper and, maybe, a hard-boiled egg. Mom would make sandwiches with it, but you could also eat it on a cracker.
And it was “tuna fish.” I knew tuna fish was from a fish, because it smelled fishy, but I did not translate tuna fish into tuna steaks, tuna sushi or anything remotely resembling a swimming-in-the-water fish. You could also make tuna casserole using the canned fish, but that wasn’t tuna fish.
A linguist at the University of Florida says the phrase “tuna fish” isn’t redundant because there is another “tuna” unrelated to fish: the prickly pear cactus. I don’t think my forebearers in Tennessee and North Carolina knew much about prickly pear cactus, especially not enough to have to add the word “fish” to tuna so little Sherri would know what she was getting for lunch.
Other swimming creatures that have “fish” added to their names make more sense to me: catfish, swordfish, lionfish, for example. Plus, those names refer to the fish itself, not the meat of the fish mixed up with mayonnaise! If you order catfish fillets, you say “catfish.” If you want a tuna fillet, you don’t say ‘tuna fish” fillet.
These days, a search for recipes for tuna fish comes up with most of them renamed tuna salad. That makes more sense, I’m sure, but don’t get me started on the word “salad.”
I need a few more years of playing with my grandchildren before everyone starts worrying about my sanity…
Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.