Etymology Usage

Lede time

Q: In a new book I’m reading, the word “lede” is used twice to indicate the main idea being hidden (as in, “burying the lede”). Is this newspaper jargon, or should the main story on a page or an important fact be referred to as the “lead”?

A: The word “lede” (it rhymes with “speed”) is newspaper shop talk for the beginning of an article.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as “the introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says “lede” is an “obsolete spelling of LEAD, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from LEAD, strip of metal separating lines of type.”

Merriam-Webster’s dates the usage to 1947, but doesn’t include a citation from that year. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary appeared four years later:

“Lead (Lede)—Opening of a news story, ordinarily summarizing the rest of it” (Pampa [Texas] Daily News, June 21, 1951).

As for the expression “burying the lede,” it refers to the supposed journalistic sin of not mentioning the most important or interesting part of a story in the opening paragraph.

In journalistic jargon, the term “lead” (though not “lede”) can also refer to the main story or a tip to a story that needs to be developed.

The noun “lead” was originally spelled “lede” when it entered English some time before 1300 with the meaning of “leading, direction, guidance,” according to the OED. The “lead” spelling showed up in the 1600s.

An earlier noun “lede” was used in Anglo-Saxon days and referred to a people, a nation, or a race,  but Oxford says this sense is now obsolete. At around the same time, the use of “lead” (rhymes with “sped”) for the base metal showed up in Old English.

Getting back to journalism, here’s an excerpt from A Field Guide for Science Writers (1998), by Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson:

“The lead (or lede if you were born before 1950) performs several important tasks. It sets the stage and tone, identifies the general nature of the topic, attempts to convey the message that something interesting will follow, and welcomes the reader to read on in a nonthreatening way.”

As two old newspaper hands who were born before 1950 (Pat barely), we’ve buried that definition of “lede.”

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