What to call those piles of flowers

Bob Kamman, a regular correspondent, writes:

When unexpected deaths occur that are newsworthy, what often happens is that people leave flowers, cards and other tangibles near the location of the event. So it’s not surprising that within 24 hours of the Aurora shooting, there are news reports of ‘makeshift memorials.’

They’re never just memorials. They are always makeshift memorials.So I looked up makeshift in the online dictionaries, and found “a temporary expedient or substitute.”

Is that really the best word here? Does that mean that these tributes will serve only until a permanent memorial is built? (Emphasis added)

Good question.

“Makeshift memorial” had already appeared more than 200 times in Nexis within 72 hours of the shooting. Searches for “makeshift memorial” just after similar noteworthy deaths show the same pattern: People leave things and journalists call them “makeshift memorials.”

It’s become a journalistic knee-jerk, similar to “software giant Microsoft” (more than 100 Nexis hits in the past few months) or the adjective “deposed dictator,” applied to Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadaffi more than 150 times so far this year. Journalists reach for the phrase because it is easy and obvious.

This is not to criticize the memorials themselves, only the way journalists describe them.

Our correspondent suggests: “Wouldn’t it be more accurate, if not as alliterative, to call these spontaneous memorials?” That’s one possibility: “Spontaneous” implies a natural reaction, where “makeshift” implies shoddy or substandard. (There is no positive synonym for “makeshift”; the closest ones are “temporary” or “alternative.”)

Another possibility is to just call them “memorials” and describe what’s in them. Doing so may give readers a better visual sense, and might help differentiate one memorial from another. Or even “piles of flowers, balloons, notes and toys left to remember the victims.” More clinical, perhaps, but also less weighted with emotion. (The emotion is obvious in the event; no need to add to it.)

One thing not to call them is “shrines,” as has been done. A “shrine” implies a religious devotion, and, while many of the tributes include religious items, the memorials themselves are not about religion, but are expressions of sympathy and personal markers of sadness and grief. Try not to make them into something else, including a cliché.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,