A couple of years back, I did developmental and line editing on a great fantasy novel. One of the book’s great strengths was the author’s enormous esoteric medievalist vocabulary. Put it this way: I might stand justly accused of many failings, but among them is not a small vocabulary. I respect any writer who can send me fumbling for a dictionary. This author did, perhaps a dozen times.
One of these terms was “gong farmer.” When I first saw it, I thought: Pretty sure one can’t grow gongs in a crop field, or a rice paddy, or orchard. I’d better look this up. This is what competent editors and proofreaders do; we look up that which we do not comprehend. I discovered that a gong farmer was someone who cleaned out latrine pits, hauling the goodness in a shit wagon, most probably to some form of soil enrichment purpose. I laughed, said “stet,” made another nod to my client’s vocabulary, and kept working.
Came time for proofreading, and my client hired a proofer who had plenty of good ratings. That would teach him not to trust the ratings. The proofreader was an abject moron (now you see why I am not naming names). I’m convinced she just ran grammar check and spell check, ‘congrats 2 me I proofed pls heres my pay pal.’ To my our shock, she had simply changed any esoteric terms or usages she didn’t understand. “Gong farmer” had become “young farmer,” from stem to stern.
For me, this event memed the term. It came to define mindless editing and proofreading, that dogmatic attitude that finds itself unmoored from context. As I look far back into my own history in this regard, I have probably myself gone through such a phase and made similarly dogmatic, stupid edits. Maybe I owe some empathy for that, and maybe I feel some. But not much, because context always does matter.
The goal is to do all the things that lead to the best possible ms. And now, any time I find myself having a reflex reaction to a usage, I remind myself not to have a Young Farmer moment.