My 'shameful secret’: I’ve learnt to love clichéd journalese
Rob Hutton, Daily Telegraph, 5 September 2013
The lazy and glib language used by reporters in British newspapers changes how you see the world once you understand it
Where is everyone in a lab coat a “boffin”? Where is “bubbly” either “guzzled” or “glugged”? Where do “drunken yobs” go on “booze-fuelled rampages”? You know the answer: in Britain’s newspapers. Just under a year ago, a late-night comment on Twitter led me to become an accidental collector of “journalese”, the language of reporters. It’s a world in which unnamed backbench MPs are always “senior”, where any adjustment of policy is a “humiliating U-turn”. Where the police “launch probes”, presumably with Nasa’s help. Where two people who disagree “clash”, typically after one of them has “slammed” the other.
Journalese has become my obsession. Every time I note an example, people send me 10 more. It’s everywhere, and once you understand it, it changes how you see the world. Last week, I turned on the radio to learn that “momentum is building for an attack on Syria”. To a non-speaker of journalese, that might sound exciting. I knew the real meaning: “the story hasn’t changed since last night.”
I can tell you all the things that are wrong with journalese: it’s clichéd; lazy writing betrays lazy thought; good stories don’t need it; it’s a code. And there are phrases I hate: “tragic tot” is an awful, glib way to write about a dead child, and its use should be a criminal offence. But I have a “shameful secret”. The more I see, the more I like it. That’s why I don’t see my collection as an attack on fellow reporters. If I thought it was under threat, I would campaign for government protection. Perhaps we could demand road signs in two languages, as in Wales: “Accident Ahead – Long Queues”/“Horror Death Smash – Nightmare Jam”.
Happily, journalese shows no sign of going away. Here are a few of my favourite examples:
Brutal dictator One who kills his opponents slowly. If he just has them all shot, use ''ruthless dictator’’. If our government could easily ''topple him’’, but can’t be bothered, use ''tinpot dictator’’.
Clamour We’ve written two editorials about this. If there’s one in today, refer to a ''growing clamour’’.
Coffers Where organisations of which we disapprove keep money.
Considering The all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’ve considered something.
Deepened What happened to people’s difficulties last night.
Eleventh hour The time at which one should start expecting “last-ditch” negotiations or “last-gasp” interventions.
Facing charges They haven’t been charged with a crime, they may never be charged with a crime, but they could be charged with one.
Ill-fated Frankly, it was inevitable that anything that ''started as an innocent day out’’ would turn out to have ''ended in tragedy’’.
Influential Any group that can get a letter printed in a national paper.
Mystery surrounds In time, it may deepen. Right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Perfect storm Two bad things have happened to someone at the same time.
Pooch A dog, of any size or breed, that has lived up to the best traditions of its species by faithfully leading children out of danger or helping a pensioner cross the road. Not a synonym for devil dog.
Potentially fatal Well, potentially. I mean, a peanut is potentially fatal.
Quintessentially British Barbour jackets, Elgar and understated demonstrations of approval.
Set to Sounds like it means ''will’’, but if it turns out the story is wrong, you can point out it only actually means ''may’’.
Special Investigation A normal investigation, but with a picture byline for the reporter.
Sporadic gunfire I was woken up seven times last night.
Troubled Small country currently enjoying a lull between civil wars.
War-torn Anywhere foreign correspondents know a decent bar for every night of the week.
Robert Hutton is UK political correspondent for Bloomberg News. 'Romps, Tots and Boffins – The Strange Language of News’ is published this month by Elliott & Thompson