WORDSMITH BREAKS SILENCE
Robert Hutton, Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News
This dictionary of journalese (with a British slant, but mostly instantly recognizable to American newspaper readers, too) started life as a tweet. Very early one morning in 2012, Robert Hutton, a political correspondent for Bloomberg News, found himself at an airport in Jordan waiting for a flight to London. The traveling press pack had been following the U.K. prime minister on a tour around various Arab states, and after a hectic schedule and not much sleep, they filed their copy and sat round filling the time by telling jokes. Just before Hutton finally queued up to get on the plane he sent the following message on Twitter:
Travelling Lobby now compiling list of words only still in use in newspapers: boffins, tots, pal, frogman, lags…#journalese
That is: “Boffin—anyone with a job at a university, a science GCSE or a lab coat.”
“Tots—older than a baby, younger than a nipper. (Nipper—bit bigger than a tot, not yet a teen.)”
“Pal—friend 1. where space is short and we fear going over a line, 2. This is a lively fun publication and we’re going to use the language of young people.”
“Frogman—usually a police frogman, searching for a missing beauty.”
“Lags—affectionate term forsex beasts, ‘heartless thieves,’ knifeman, fraudsters, and drug fiends once they’re safely in prison. Or try ‘cons.’”
Landing at Heathrow some hours later, Hutton turned on his phone to see he’d created a Twitter storm as fellow hacks added their own contributions: “vow,” “set to,” ”swingeing” and ”funnyman.” By 8 a.m., Radio 4’s Today programme had added “pledge”; by 10 a.m. Hutton had more than 50 contributions; by 10 p.m. another journalist had declared that he had enough for a book, at which point Hutton had to warn him off; by the following evening he had 225 words and phrases. The list became a game, then an obsession, with contributions coming from all over—friends, journalists on other papers, even Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, who gave Hutton “gainsay.” The acknowledgments take up six pages.
Clichés and tired hyperbole
Hutton is well seasoned, having previously worked at the Daily Mirror (when Piers Morgan was the editor) and the Financial Times, covering both the low and high ends of British news reporting, although, as he says, today it’s increasingly difficult to tell tabloid language from that of broadsheets. “Journalese,” Hutton points out in his introduction, “is a language spoken, generally unconsciously, by tens of thousands of journalists, and apparently understood by their millions of readers.” The lingo has evolved for various reasons, including simple impact—disagreements are clashes, a rude word is a foul-mouthed tirade—but it’s also driven by space. Short words like bid and rise fit headlines more easily than “attempt” or “growth.”
Hutton is ambivalent about clichés: bad ones are wearisome and lazy, good ones, he feels, can be effective and enjoyable. He’s sympathetic to the “file and move on” approach to journalism, particularly as jobs and publications continue to shrink or even disappear altogether. (The internet has, if anything, fostered journalese, with fewer trained writers and more unpaid and unedited wordsmiths copying and reusing “content.”) The results don’t have to be bad: mad cow disease and test-tube baby, Hutton suggests, are “lovely examples” that have, of course, entered the broader language. And there’s the tradition factor—journalese is familiar to readers and newspapermen alike as an identifiable sub-genre, as Keith Waterhouse, a Fleet Street veteran, discusses in his book On Newspaper Style. Turns out that clichés and tired hyperbole may be not just what we expect from newspapers, but also what we want.
I have one criticism of this otherwise enjoyable read. Hutton lists his entries alphabetically, but he’s also divided this little book into categories—“general,” “scandal,” “foreign,” “police,” “bedroom” and so forth—which makes it hard to use as a reference book without working out what category something might be in first. It’s an unnecessary attempt to try and make the book seem more then it is—the giveaway verb on the front jacket flap is “catalogues”—and something it doesn’t need. In fact, the form would have been better served as a drier dictionary that also happens to be funny, rather than a little funny book with catalogued entries. Not quite a page turner, then, more a near miss, perhaps.
Here’s an arbitrary A-Z selection from the book:
What trouble is and plans are.
By our foreign staff (General)
A little newspaper joke. Of course we don’t have a foreign staff any more. We can barely cover Kent. We lifted this from the newswires.
Cold-blooded (Police Story)
Any planned crime
Death knock (Journalistic Slang)
Should a member or members of your family die in a potentially newsworthy way, one or more reporters will be dispatched to counsel you in your grief, and get every picture of the loved one that’s in your house.
Exotic tastes (To Put It Another Way)
We’ve got the photos in our safe, but they’re too horrible to print.
Flaunted her curves (The Devil Reads Grazia)
Look how fat she’s got.
Gregarious (To Put It Another Way)
High-octane (Everyone’s a Critic)
A film that features at least three explosions and a chase where a car spins round while the driver shoots someone.
If the headline ends in a question mark, the answer’s probably no. (Things Newspaper Readers Should Know)
Alan Beattie of the FT has formalized Beattie’s Immutable Law of Headlines: If there’s a question mark in the headline the answer is either (tabloid) “no” or (broadsheet) “who cares?” John Rentoul’s Questions to Which the Answer is No! has much, much more on this.
Jinking run (This Sporting Life)
He ran a wobbly line, to confound the opposing team.
Keynote (24 Hour Party People)
What all speeches are.
Love rat (In the Bedroom)
One who has “two-timed” a partner. Almost always a man. If he’s a celebrity, his exploits should be recounted with a slight air of admiration, and he should be described near the start as a “bad boy.” Also, used of adulterous politicians and men on welfare who’ve fathered six children by five women, though without the warmth. If writing about a woman, try “marriage wrecker.”
Myriad (The Numbers Game)
At least five.
Nib (Terms of the Trade)
Stands for News In Brief, a three-paragraph single-column story of 60 words. Usually the product of a 90-minute drive, three hours standing in the rain, 400 words filed over a poor internet connection, and five minutes aggressive cutting by a sub-editor in a warm office.
One Local (Foreign Correspondent)
My taxi driver. Or try “locals” – one of the other reporters’ taxi driver had heard it too.
Plush (Property Ladder)
Any hotel where you can’t hear the people in the next room.
Quietly announced (A Question of Attribution)
I missed the press release.
Regime (Foreign Correspondent)
A government of which we disapprove.
Stick a kilt on it (Journalistic Slang)
The means by which a story that would be ideal in our Scottish paper but for its lack of the word “Scots” in the first paragraph is brought up to scratch. Usually all that’s required is the insertion of a quote from a campaign group or politician based north of the border, but no link is too spurious.
Too good to check (Journalistic Slang)
A tale that we suspect may not be true, but we wish to repeat anyway. A reporter setting off to investigate this veracity will be warned against “a phone call too far.”
Under fire (Anatomy of a Scandal)
Volte face (Banned)
Broadsheet for “U-turn.”
Wide-ranging speech (24 Hour Party People)
Why I, an X, support Y (General)
A popular standfirst for “surprising,” “frank” and “personal” opinion pieces. Usually X can be replaced with “writer paid by the word” and Y with “something the editor also supports,” saving the effort of reading further.
Supporters of someone with whom we disagree.