Copy editors have many things to worry about (think commas). And making sure that language is used with precision is one of those things.
In a recent a television programme, the presenter said that a particular place was experiencing the wettest winter “in living memory”.
Since such declarations about the weather happen often, and because there is, these days, always a hidden sub-text about how the observed phenomenon proves or disproves climate change theory, I started to ponder: what does “living memory” mean exactly?
The online Collins Dictionary says:
“If you say that something is, for example, the best, worst, or first thing of its kind in living memory, you are emphasizing that it is the only thing of that kind that people can remember.”
But which people? To a ten-year-old child, memory only goes back seven or eight years to when he or she is two or three. And for someone who has reached the age of 90, memory goes back many decades.
The phrase is only useful if we take it that it refers to the 90-year-old. That gives real oomph to whatever it is you are writing about: “The flood was the worst in living memory.” So, the worst flood in nearly a century? That was a bad one. And this would be the underlying assumption if you use the phrase idiomatically in your writing.
And if you see it in a scientific context? In this Africa Check article, a scientific expert says the drought in South Africa is the worst in living memory. In this case, what does he mean? Figures in the article suggest he means scientifically:
Since 1904, rainfall in all nine provinces has averaged 608 mm per year, while in 2015 South Africa received only an average of 403 mm (66% of the annual average). Previously, the lowest rainfall received in a year was in 1945 when South Africa received 437 mm (72%).
So we know that there was a bad drought in 1945, and one again in 2015. Is that living memory? It takes us back 70 years – and that sounds a lot like a long memory. So, it is correctly used here as a scientific expression.
In both cases, what’s needed is the kind of reading that looks at the written word and says: “Wait – what does that mean? Is it right? Should I change it? If so, what would be better?”
And that is the world of the copy editor and proofreader: dense with detail, fraught with finickiness, complicated by comma rage. I’ve been doing it for years, and wouldn’t change it for the world.