language corner

Language Corner

Orchestra pits
July 1, 2013

Bob Kamman writes that he’s seen “orchestrated” or “carefully orchestrated” misused a lot. He quoted a New York Times article about Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea: “But you don’t have to be Werner Heisenberg to wonder if the producers who orchestrated Mr. Rodman’s ‘basketball diplomacy mission,’ and paid him to take part, were documenting life in North Korea as it is, or using the isolated nation as a backdrop for a new form of reality television.”

“Is that orchestration?” Kamman asked. “Seems to me, it was a plan for a series of activities by one person, rather than a plan for simultaneous activities by a group.”

An “orchestra,” of course, is a lot of musicians playing different instruments, and often different notes, to produce harmonious results (usually). Most “orchestration,” virtually by definition, has to be “careful” to avoid unintended dissonance, so “carefully orchestrated” could be a bit redundant. But journalists most often use “carefully orchestrated” to mean manipulated toward a sought-for end: US arms sales to Mideast allies are “carefully orchestrated” to avoid offending other allies or enemies; a band’s release of songs is “carefully orchestrated” to build excitement for an upcoming tour. The number of musicians or instruments is less important than the intent.

In careful usage, “orchestrated” would be reserved for those activities in which a lot of people work in concert to produce a specific plan. Kamman suggests that “choreographed” might be a better word when referring to intricate steps by individuals. But the orchestration idiom seems firmly rooted, much like an “earworm” (the song that gets in your head and stays there).

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.