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From ‘transpired’ to ‘toothless’ and ‘tot’… the journey of journalese

‘Floral tributes have been pouring in, as loved ones pay fulsome homage to their slain tot. All eyes are on concerned local residents, and debate rages, as a last-ditch probe to solve the crime that made world headlines draws to a close. At the end of the day, only time will tell who did it.’

There are at least thirteen expressions in the paragraph above that we journalists, sadly, have made our own. From ‘floral tributes’ (what’s wrong with ‘flowers’?) to ‘only time will tell’ (a phrase that adds nothing to a factual newspaper report), it seems the fourth estate can sometimes be a little in love with self-important and hackneyed phraseology. Journalists like myself, a humble TV hack, are certainly not alone in adopting some of these words and phrases, but attempts to drum up excitement by over-egging headlines or hamming up reports seems to go with most reporters’ territory.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this use of slang and over-exaggeration is a modern phenomenon, a by-product of the 24-hour news cycle and the thirst to be first, but it appears journalese as a concept has been around since at least 1882, when the word was mentioned in London’s Pall Mall Gazette. And in the Athenaeum of 1893, transpired was among the words listed as ‘journalese’ – not a word that might be first on today’s list of journalists’ linguistic sins (although the newer meaning of ‘occurred’ or ‘took place’ has the Oxford Dictionaries Online usage note ‘This looser sense, first recorded in US English towards the end of the 18th century, is criticized for being jargon, an unnecessarily long word used where occur and happen would do just as well’ … journos, take note!)

But even if ‘journalese’ has been with us for a while, it appears to have evolved into two, sometimes quite overlapping, camps, thanks to the advent of the broadcasting age. For although the earliest radio reports were akin to newspaper articles read aloud, the language of TV, and to some extent radio, now strives – in order to avoid sounding stilted or excessively formal – to echo natural, everyday speech… and all the clichés that come with it.

Television journalese

As a television reporter myself, I know how useful padding-phrases such as in the wake of… are. How much more ‘colloquial’ and ‘accessible’ it sounds to say that something got the thumbs up or the green light, or a rubber stamp instead of being approved, passed, or ratified. All good reporters want to make their story easy to understand – and as a result, often sacrifice more nuanced or original phraseology for something ebullient but safe.

So civil servants in Whitehall are always mandarins (sometimes on the gravy train), a solution will often mark a watershed, and be a groundbreaking magic bullet that comes about after a make-or-break summit in which the deal was hammered out. Everyone will hail the decision, and hope that it’s a win-win situation and doesn’t turn out to be toothless.

Business reporters are no better – in fact, they’re often worse, since colourful language is one of the few tools in a financial journalist’s arsenal when it comes to making markets, mergers, and meetings sound exciting. Harsh penalties will be slapped on a company or person, ballpark figures bandied about, governments or firms will go on a spending spree (there are, it appears, only three kinds of ‘sprees’ in journalese, all alliterative – spending, shopping, or shooting.) If the spree is too long or costly, there might be belt-tightening measures, shops will implement price hikes and we’ll just have to hope the bottom line looks all right eventually.

I must say that many of these words and phrases are attractive precisely because, once upon a time, they were innovative, exciting, and shed fresh light on the subject. I still rather like the idea of something being ‘toothless’ – it very effectively conveys the concept of a useless measure that will make little or no impact – and ‘slapping’ on a punishment does imply a certain degree of harshness. The trouble is that everyone else likes such phrases too – that’s why journalists are forever having to come up with new clichés.

Newspaper journalese

There are some words that are used all the time in newspaper headlines – even in broadsheets – that simply cannot be said in a voiced television report or piece to camera, for the simple reason that no one employs such terms in everyday speech. These are the punchy, shorthand words, often of one syllable, that have evolved as a way of saving space in headlines – some, in fact, could be termed headlinese, a word that’s been around, apparently, since 1927. Nonetheless, many of these words, though not in contemporary everyday use, have interesting histories recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Tot for child has been in use since the 1700s, and appears in a Cornhill Magazine of 1865 – “Her tiny trembling tot with yellow hair”, a phrase that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s Sun. The word dub does indeed list ‘to style or nickname…usually in pleasantry or ridicule’ as one of its meanings. Quiz as a verb, meaning to question someone closely, is a firm journalistic space-saving favourite – and one of the meanings of quiz is correspondingly listed in the OED as ‘to question or interrogate a person, especially orally.’ Along the same lines, a sense of the noun probe is given as ‘a penetrating investigation or enquiry’ – but the earliest quotation found by the OED indicates that this usage has always been a matter of some controversy. In 1903, the British periodical Christendom wrote: ‘Few words are commoner in newspaper headlines than ‘probe’, which is newspaper English for an investigation of alleged abuses.’ And it goes for television ‘strap’ headlines too (the words you see at the bottom of a screen.) I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to sacrifice linguistic purity on the altar of ‘25 characters or fewer’.

And then there is the cast of colourful characters who seem to live only in the pages of the tabloids. Love rats, sleazebags – both often involved in a rompscroungers, and sex pests, not to mention our brave boys and have-a-go heroes (this last, being, the OED notes, especially for ‘journalistic usage’.) All of them make the headlines, but it’s rare that we use such words in our everyday discourse. Well, at least I don’t.

Journalese is much decried – among journalists as much as anyone. ‘House style guides’ at most newspapers and channels rightly implore employees to avoid certain expressions and abhor cliché. Everyone wants clear, easy English that is a pleasure to read or to hear. But at its heart, news journalism is not literature. Its function is to inform, and to do so quickly and succinctly. It cannot inform if its headlines are not read or watched. Journalese, loathsome and lazy as it can often be, is succinct. It conveys whole worlds of information and sentiment in economical phrases. This is why it’s so infuriating – very little in life can ever really be summed up so neatly – but also so useful.

So – ignore those mandarins who blast it – at the end of the day, the bottom line is that you can give a thumbs up to journalese, and hail it as a groundbreaking magic bullet that’ll make or break your reading experience.

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