PHOTOS: An offensive symbol on the front of a Canadian truck, right here in Alberta. The Old Copy Editor reminds readers that this is not the Stars ’n’ Bars. Below: HMCS Iroquois back in the day when she still had a gun on her foredeck. The Old Copy Editor reminds readers that there is no “The” in front of HMCS. Ever. Below her: The flag known as the Stars ’n’ Bars and a typical scene on Edmonton’s Yellowhead Trail, quite possibly the eastbound lanes. (CBC photo, that one.)

For years I have written emails to errant journalists that begin, “Old Copy Editor here …”

Now and then they are answered politely with a promise to do better. Slightly more often they prompt a rude rejoinder, which at least shows some level of attention. Most disappear without a trace into the cybervoid. One can almost hear their recipients wondering, “Who the hell is this old fruitcake and why doesn’t he just get lost?”

I was on the verge of writing one the other day about the so-called Stars ’n’ Bars when it occurred to me it might be time to introduce The Old Copy Editor ™ to the readers of, who are already familiar with the deep and thoughtful answers provided by Perfesser Dave, also ™., who is rightly known as The Answer Guy.

Unlike Perfesser Dave, The Old Copy Editor doesn’t provide answers, he merely berates and abuses journalists for getting things wrong that, seriously, any idiot should be able to get right. We are not talking about mere typos here. He typically only responds to idiotic mistakes that are made over and over and over again by the same group of people, who are highly resistant to correction.

Here’s the thing: maybe if we all listen to The Old Copy Editor and complain as frequently and vociferously about the habitual journalistic idiocies of the epoch, the journalists will get better at their jobs! On sober second thought, like that the Canadian Senate is supposed to provide, this is highly unlikely. Just the same, it’s always fun to mock professional journalists, who tend to be extremely thin skinned and to react rashly and self-righteously when caught out, so let’s have at it, shall we?

For some time there has been a controversy south of the Medicine Line about the use of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard’s battle flag as a defiant symbol of institutional racism. This has received heavy coverage in the U.S. media. (Sadly, doohickeys with this racist symbol are on sale this week at the Calgary Stampede.)

We can argue all night about this – and will probably have to, since opponents of this view are as determined as gun nuts, quite possibly because they’re often the same people. But it is certainly fair and reasonable to conclude that the familiar Confederate battle flag (CBF), with its distinctive blue St. Andrew’s Cross, 13 white stars and red field, has come to be a symbol of racism every bit as deeply offensive as a Nazi swastika, whether or not it happened to be viewed that way by every soldier of the Confederacy.

If you consider how it is used today in American political discourse, it is hard not to agree its most prominent purpose is as a racist symbol. Any sentient being with enough intellect to light up a fridge bulb should be able to figure this out.

Having said that, I will grant readers there’s enough room for a civil disagreement, as opposed to a civil war, with those who want to make the claim the CBF’s use is merely an acknowledgement of Southern history and Southern sacrifice, or that it just denotes a harmless Dukes of Hazzard mentality.

The CBF is certainly a recognizable symbol that, interestingly, has all but the stars been adopted recently by the Ivan Rebs of the Donetsk People’s Republic in the disputed Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine. This may well have been intentional, to prompt a certain kind of response from a certain kind of American audience. More likely it’s a coincidence, St. Andrew’s cross being an important symbol of the Orthodox Church, which prevails in the Russian speaking regions of Ukraine.

But I digress. The point is that, whatever you think about its use, is Confederate battle flag is not, repeat not, the “Stars ’n’ Bars.”

And so, as any journalist really should understand, and as every copy editor must, even if he or she is working from Postmedia’s Grand Unified Copydesk in Hamilton, Ont., or some even more obscure locale (which I recognize is hard to imagine), it’s simply not OK to call the CBF the Stars ’n’ Bars in a headline, no matter how cute such a headline may appear.

The Stars ’n’ Bars, just so you know, was the first flag of the Confederacy. It superficially resembled the Stars ’n’ Stripes, the flag of the union then and the union now, thanks to a point made quite clearly by President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army.

The Stars ’n’ Bars had a circle of white stars (seven, later nine, after that 11 and finally 13) in a square blue patch and three horizontal bars – two red and one white – where the U.S. flag had 13 red and white stripes. It was dropped for military purposes by Confederate commanders because it was too easy to confuse with the Stars ’n’ Stripes in the heat of battle.

Perhaps Canadian reporters can be forgiven for getting this wrong once or twice, not having been a party to the American Civil War, but not their copy editors, who are expected to know this kind of stuff. Now that The Old Copy Editor has explained it, they should cease and desist forthwith in assigning the phrase Stars ’n’ Bars to the CBF.

Alas, there is not much hope that they will do so. As it also happens, literal generations of old seamen – able, leading and otherwise – have been telling the journalists of Canada to stop calling Canadian warships “the HMCS” anything, and they have been and continue to be blithely ignored.

Obviously, as they frequently point out in their soggy, salt-stained letters, there is no hope for you if you think the phrase “the Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship” makes any sense. You can call a ship, for example, “HMCS Calgary,” or you can call it “the Calgary,” and you can call it just “Calgary,” or you can even call it “her” if you dare, but you can’t call it “the HMCS Calgary.”

Have you got that, people, for crying out loud?

Yet no sooner had I snapped the picture of the Alberta truck displayed above – what point, one wonders, is its owner-operator trying to make? – than I opened the National Post’s online edition to read, “…The HMCS Iroquois arrives in Halifax in 2008.”

Good lord! The editorial staff of the Pest should stand by for a boarding party of angry old sailors who will waste their rummy breath trying to put them straight on this elementary point. There is little hope.

Finally, while The Old Copy Editor rants, he would like to point out to CBC Edmonton’s lamentable traffic reporters that while one can go east on the Yellowhead Trail, and be eastbound on the same dangerous and pothole-riddled road, one simply cannot go eastbound, or for that matter drive eastbound.

It’s just not done, grammatically speaking. If you cannot keep yourself from using this phrase, you can accompany the rest of the news business going hellbound in a handbasket!

That is all.

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  1. Perhaps the problem over at the National Post was that they were confused about how to start a sentence. As I understand it, it is not proper to begin a sentence with an acronym. With regard to Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship(s), one could not start the sentence with ‘HMCS’ (the full written title being the proper method). That’s probably what begat the confusing and incorrect use of “the”.

    What say you, old copy editor?

    1. Expat: It’s very nice of you to say that, but I worked in media long enough to be confident that a belief one ought not to start a sentence with initials (why ever not?) is not the reason for the “The HMCS” phenomenon. Pure bullheadedness and a refusal to listen, more like.

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