House style

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker carried an article titled “The System,” by Adam Kirsch, about the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It ran under the Books rubric because it purported to be a review — but was in fact an uncritical summary, devoid of comparison with other sources — of a book titled KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a young German-English academic who is a professor at Birckbeck, University of London, specializing in studying the Nazi legal system. Now, KL — an abbreviation of Konzentrationslager — is the abbreviation designating ‘concentration camp’ that is most commonly found in the documents of the Nazi bureaucracy, but to all non-bureaucrats who were there — whether as inmates or as guards — the universally used abbreviation was KZ, sometimes spelled out phonetically as Kazett (pronounced kah-TSETT). I haven’t read Wachsmann’s book, and perhaps the point of view that he wants to give is precisely that of the administrators, though no such aspect comes through in the “review.”

In fact, Kirsch persistently uses the abbreviation KL when referring to concentration camps in his article, or at least probably did so in the version that he submitted. In the printed version the abbreviation appears as K.L., with periods, just as SS appears as S.S. This is because the New Yorker’s house style dictates that abbreviations which are not acronyms (such as NATO) carry periods: N.G.O. not NGO, and so on. This sort of makes sense if the abbreviation consists of the initials of individual words. But this is not the case in German, in which the abbreviated words are single compound nouns (SS, similarly, stands for Schutzstaffel). In fact, it would be a reasonable rule that an abbreviation that is borrowed from another language should be left as is. But the New Yorker’s tyrannical and famously quirky house style allows no deviation.

[I should add here, for the sake of honest reporting, that in some typed documents from concentration-camp administrations the abbreviation does appear as K. L., as seen below; but this comes from an office (Häftlingsschreibstube) manned by inmates, not necessarily German, and is not standard German practice.Transportlisten]

One of the joys of being self-published is the freedom from adhering to a publisher’s house style. I enjoy this freedom in this blog and in my novels published on Amazon Kindle. And when my book Plasticity Theory was reissued by Dover Publications, it was my own PDF of the book that was printed, since Dover, being a reprint specialist, has no house style of its own. It was a very different matter when dealing with a first-tier publisher for a mechanics textbook that I recently wrote with a colleague. While the copy-editors nominally consulted us about some changes, they made a great many more without any such consultation, and the book as it came out was in many ways (though, I hope, not in its substance) a disaster. We were able to persuade the publisher to issue a second edition, in which we took care to make everything conform to house style as much as possible. Our contract for the new edition has just been approved, and all I can do now is hope for the best.


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