‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’

Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.”

There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for “lede,” like there is for “–30–.”

journalism booksHell, there’s romanticism of the literal kind around the spelling of “lede” in my own life. When Billie and I were first dating, the shared knowledge that the word is correctly spelled “lede” was just one more way we bonded.

But we were wrong.

The other thing that Billie and I shared was a love of old journalism books. Before we met, with both collected them. Today, our collection exceeds 400 titles. About 100 of the best of them are sitting at the moment immediately to my left.

Some years ago, researching the evolution of “objective journalism,” I cracked open many of these old books, and something struck me — in none of these old books did any author spell the word “lede.” They all spell it “lead.”

It was then I realized, there is no historic basis for the spelling of a lead as “lede.” “Lede” is an invention of linotype romanticists, not something used in newsrooms of the linotype era.

It’s really emblematic of today’s print nostalgia, too — like Desi and Lucy sleeping in separate beds — a longing for an America that never was, or wasn’t quite what you thought it was.

Here are some sources for you:

The fact is, in none of the dozens of old journalism books that I have examined — none of them — spell it “lede.” I can’t find the definitive first reference to “lede” but it doesn’t start appearing in journalism books until the 1980s.

The discussion about “lede” vs. “lead” on Twitter this morning seems to have been sparked by a post from Jay Rosen, on the “the best lede ever.”

I’m not sure where the conversation went from there. By the time I jumped in, Steve Buttry, Steve Yelvington and others had weighed in. (Hash Tags weren’t used, so hard to point you to the entire thread).

The explanation for “lede” was offered up as an alternate spelling for “lead” (pronounced “led” as in “hot lead” or “hot type.”) of the linotype era.

However, as the sources I cite demonstrate, journalists working in the linotype era (which started in 1896) never spelled it “lede.” It was always “lead,” as in “news lead.”

It wasn’t until linotype was disappearing from newsrooms across the nation (late 1970s and into the 1980s), that we start seeing the spelling “lede.”

The safest conclusion, then, is that “lede” is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era.

UPDATE: Chris Keller used Storify to aggregate and organize this morning’s Twitter conversation.

UPDATE Aug. 13, 2019: Roy Peter Clark — who is going to question RPC on journalism writing? — did his own research and came to pretty much the same conclusion, added extensive quotes to his essay, and concluded with the very good point: A good lead is crafted in the service of great writing, and if the writing is good, that’s is all that matters. Thank you to Roy for the citation of this piece in his article.

25 thoughts on “‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’

  1. So darned weird. I was just thinking of the appropriate spelling this week. I spell it “lead” because the people I’m writing to aren’t journalists. But by habit I use “lede.” Thanks for chonicling one of the nuances of what seems destined to be antiquated lexicon.

  2. I was always of the impression that LEDE, HED and DEK are spelled that way so you don’t confuse them with the actual copy. You know, like Ron Burgundy will read anything off a teleprompter; some people will print anything. Have you ever seen a TKTK make it through to the printed page?

  3. Agree with Fanny Pack. Lede, hed, dek, and graf all strike me as arising from the same lignuistic impulse. If “linotype romanticists” are involved at all, they were coming up with a folk etymology for a misspelling that already arose for a different reason.

  4. I’ve no dispute with lede as a copy editor’s mark (though it does not appear in the 1931 news editing book, though other copy edit marks do). What I’m really writing about is the — in my belief now — fiction that “lede” is the correct what to spell it in written reference to a story’s lead, as in the way Jay used it. It’s a news lead, not a news lede, not to be confused with a copy editor writing in blue pen on a story “lede.”

    The best explanation I ever heard previously for — 30 — is that wire stories used to end with XXX. Through Romenesko today, I learned about “Phillps Code” http://www.radions.net/philcode.htm … which telegraph operators used and “30” meant “the end.”

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  9. If the writer can’t remember who told him to use ‘lede’, how can he say it was someone he “obviously respected”?

  10. As a retired English Instructor, I am only grateful that this year is the first I’ve seen of the word (?) “lede”. Ha! My spell-checker just kicked it out! lmao! It would merely have added to my and my students’ frustration with the homophone clusters, your/you’re, they’re/there/their, and so on.

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  12. You seem to be conservative.Don’t you want new word inventions? But you are quick to embrace technological inventions! Languages are not static,they keep on growing.

  13. Everyone used the term lede in the late 50s and early 60s, when I worked at the Evening and Sunday Bulletin, Philadelphia, and in the late 60s, 70s and 80s as an editor for Intercounty Newspaper Group, and even into the mid 2000s, when I published The Phoenix, a daily newspaper in Phoenixville, PA.

    Wikipedia notes: “A lead, or lede, paragraph in literature refers to the opening paragraph of an article, essay, news story or book chapter. Often called just the lede/lead, it usually occurs together with the headline or title.
    It precedes the main body of the article, and it gives the reader the
    main idea of the story. Both spellings of the word are pronounced to
    rhyme with “need”.

    “In the journalism industry, particularly in the United States (see News style), the term is spelled “lede”. The alternative spelling was invented to differentiate it from references to the metal lead (pronounced the same as “led”), which was used to cast type.[1] “Lede” refers to one or two sentences, not multiple paragraphs.
    This spelling is absent from almost all print dictionaries, though it has recently started to appear in some online-edition US dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster.com (it does not appear in any of their print versions, even unabridged) and theFreeDictionary.com; it is also listed in Wiktionary (and was chosen for the rest of this article).

    “In journalism, the lede paragraph should not be confused with the standfirst (UK),
    rider, kicker or subhead (US). These terms refer to an introductory or summary line or brief paragraph, located immediately above or below the headline, and typographically distinct from the body of the article.”

  14. Y’know, you could have just looked it up in a dictionary. It says on various online dictionary sites that “lede” is spelled such to differentiate it from the “lead”, the strips of metal separating lines of type. Or you could just talk about a bunch of irrelevant stuff that has nothing to do with the word “lede”.

  15. It should be lead as in the leading paragraph, or the leader. A lot of words are spelled alike and you know what is by context. Changing the spelling was unnecessary since few would confuse it with the metal lead.

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  18. I’ve been a journalist for 35 years and today is the first time I’ve ever seen the word “Lede.” It’s a modern creation, apparently done by mistake and repeated by others.

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  21. I just came across this interesting discussion on Hacker News of this post.


    Two points: Somebody looked up lede in their OED and found it’s earliest usage to mean the lead of the story in 1951.

    Somebody else graphed in it Google books usage and found heavy usage in the 19th Century but somebody else dug further and found those usages were non-journalistic.

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