Read an Excerpt
A Dictionary for Deciphering the News
By Paul Dickson, Robert Skole
Marion Street PressCopyright © 2012 Paul Dickson and Robert Skole
All rights reserved.
A number of. Two to infinity. A 1989 letter to The Washington Post from reader William J. Karppi listed a few of his favorite examples of journalese: "And finally, my favorite: 'a number of' as in a number of people gathered in front of the embassy. That's an indisputable count, isn't it?"
A sense of. Obligatory question when a television reporter doesn't have a solid question, as "Can you give me a sense of what's behind the Mayor's appointment of his cousin as chief of parking ticket fines?"
A while back. "Journalese for more months ago than I want to say," according to "The Word" columnist Jan Freeman, in The Boston Globe, Mar. 5, 2000.
According to scattered reports. Tom Allen, who reported for the Bridgeport Herald, recalled that when he first read this in his paper he envisioned reporters running around to town offices and neighborhoods, picking up reports scattered everywhere.
Across the pond. The UK in the U.S.; the U.S. in the UK. Magazine writer Randy Rieland commented on the eve of the April 29, 2011, Royal Wedding: "We could put a serious dent in the national debt if everyone kicked in a buck every time someone on TV utters the phrase 'across the pond' this week."
Activist. Not a bureaucrat. Anyone who voices an opinion in public. Or as contributor Charlie Eckhardt offers: "Someone with a machine gun or a bomb who espouses a cause with which the newsman agrees." If no agreement, the person is a "terrorist."
Active. Can be used to explain the literal meaning, or, DEEP TRANSLATION: Overdoes it. To be "active socially" is to drink heavily.
Active crime scene. Cops are there.
Activity. TV weather word that means nothing but sounds important. "We can expect some thunderstorm activity in the next 72 hours." Newspapers still refer to them as plain old thunderstorms.
Actually. Reporter wants to assure you this is the real stuff, unlike the rest of the story. Renée Loth, former editorial page editor of The Boston Globe, in a column Jan. 1, 2011, headlined "11 things we can live without in '11", included: "Actually. This filler adverb — the new 'really' — is suddenly being misused everywhere. 'She's not actually in right now.' 'We're actually closed Sunday.' Arrgh! The word grates on the inner ear like aural sandpaper." It obviously doesn't grate on Globe copy-editors' eyes or ears, since "actually" was used in eight Globe stories that day. TV news reporters are obliged to tell viewers they are "actually" doing something. Diane Sawyer, seen standing knee-deep in water, pointed out to viewers, in case they could not believe their eyes, that she was "actually" standing in the flooding Mississippi.
Adamant. Depending on whether the reporter or editor likes the guy, it means either pig-headed or sticking firmly to principles. "Adamant abortion foes look for a candidate," headlined a Chicago Tribune story, July 2, 1995.
Adult. Dirty, as applied to bookstores, magazines and movies.
Adult beverage. Booze.
Adventurous. In travel stories, someone who went someplace few people go to. DEEP TRANSLATION: One who has slept with everyone.
Adversity. When used in sports, it's when an athlete has a past including theft and probation.
Advocate. Unlike activists, who often show up on the side of the environment and animal rights, advocates are more committed to civil rights, the consumer or the homeless. But a "homeless advocate," one reader told Time magazine, "always reminds me of an attorney sleeping in a dumpster."
Advocacy group. An organization promoting something, often with a name that is benign or totally misleading. If its position is not clearly identified, the reporter approves of it. Otherwise, it gets labeled, such as "far-right, ultra-conservative Genghis Khan supporters ..." or "Leninist-inspired, far-left radicals...." The Dallas Morning News on Jan. 26, 2011, reported that the "consumer advocacy group Texas Watch" released a report saying, "The Texas Supreme Court over the last decade has morphed into an activist court driven by ideology and acting to benefit corporate interests."
Aesthetic. Arts reporters' spelling of "art". The Los Angeles Times, describing a designer's new swimsuit line, May 22, 2011, wrote: "Their brand, which launched its first collection in 2010, combines a carefree athletic and colorful aesthetic with seamless, hardware-free suits whose prints and colors are inspired mostly by the sisters' travels abroad." Now you know what aesthetics are.
After. "Kimberley Davies suffered the injury after jumping about 15 feet from a helicopter." What can that "after" possibly mean? First she jumped 15 feet and then somebody came along and kicked her? No, she suffered the injury when she jumped from the helicopter. Hence:
Aftermath. Just about anything following anything, whether connected or not. Jan Freeman, in "The Word" column in The Boston Globe, Nov. 7, 2004, explained: "Much of the world is involved in the long aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Red Sox fans are still in the aftermath of last month's World Series victory, and there are tiny little aftermaths all around. In journalese, especially, many an aftermath is just a fleeting connection between one moment and another." Jan Freeman did not add that school kids know that aftermath comes lunch, recess or another class.
Age-related. Accidents or incidents involving either teen-agers or geezers.
Aging. Anyone older than the reporter's father and not confounding time by growing younger, such as an aging bus fleet, aging boomers, aging school buildings. "An aging cargo handler was sentenced to life in prison ..." reported AP, Feb.18, 2011, about a plot to blow up JFK airport. The man was 67. Even if he were 21, he'd be aging, since on his next birthday he'd be 22.
Aides. Assistants to politicians the reporter likes. Otherwise, they are hacks or coat-holders.
Ailing. When applied to a world leader or important politician, ailing means dying; but when applied to a professional athlete it usually refers to a torn rotator cuff or pulled Achilles tendon (two ailments which it would appear only come to those in professional sports). It is also what pundits say about newspapers and what was said about the American auto industry, which had been ailing for years before it rallied.
Alcohol. Term used when the ill-effects of its consumption are discussed. In festive stories, other words like cocktail, beer or wine are used.
Alert. Warning. Journalist Guy Keleny pointed out in the London Independent Jan. 17, 2004, "For while in normal English alert is most usually an adjective or adverb or verb —'Stay alert. If he calls you must alert me.'— in Journalese it is invariably a noun. 'Hoax call sparks terror alert.'"
Allegations. The stuff that's alleged, usually shocking.
Ambitious. Ponderous. A television reviewer's warning about any important eight-part series on public TV.
Alleged. Word used by reporters to prevent lawsuits. "The alleged murder took place when the victim was shot twice in the back."
Apocalyptic. Heading for disaster. The end of the world, but not really.
Appears. The reporter thinks so but isn't sure. Often used with "seems." "Gbagbo's rule appears to be nearing end as fighting rages." The Denver Post headlined this AP story (Apr. 2, 2011) with the lede, "Laurent Gbagbo's 10-year grip on the Ivory Coast seemed to be in its final hours Friday after fighters encircled both his residence and the presidential palace. ..." In this case, the reporter's prediction was right.
Area man or Area woman. Someone who is not a "local man" or "local woman" but who lives somewhere in the audience area. Georgia reporter Elizabeth Connor always wonders where the area starts and ends.
Arguably. Impossible to substantiate, as in: "He is arguably the best National League lefthanded pitcher ever from Connecticut with three consonants in his middle name." Arguably gives reporters the freedom to draw conclusions they wouldn't dare on their own. No one wants to say "certainly" when such a useful fudge factor is available.
Articulate. Reporter's word for "said", as "articulating official policy." The source explained something in complete sentences, without "ya' know" or "I mean" or "uhh" after every two words.
As first reported. If it refers to another newspaper or TV station, it means "We got scooped." Otherwise, it becomes, "As we were first to report...."
Astir. Anything moving or waking up, from a village at dawn or an armed revolt. "Region astir as second Arab leader is toppled in two months," the Wall St. Journal reported Feb 12, 2011.
Astonishing emotional power. When a film is so described by a critic, it means, "Use that emotional power to get out of the theater fast," according to a Hollywood writer who prefers to remain anonymous.
At this point in time. Now. Useful on TV when one is filling extra seconds before a break.
Attendees. People attending something. Diana Dawson, a former reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Texas, will toss a paper back to any student using the term.
Attributed. This refers to a quote the authenticity of which a reporter does not have the time to verify.
At the end of the day. The winner of the 2010 Trite Trophy, awarded by Gene Collier, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who writes: "It is likely the most ubiquitous cliché in the culture today, a cliché that simply 'Wouldn't Be Denied,' a cliché that simply 'Imposed Its Will' on the Trite. A ridiculous construction that has supplanted 'When It's All Said And Done' in the broader language, 'At The End Of The Day' easily meets the three ageless criteria for our annual championship: it's everywhere, it's essentially meaningless (very little of what follows 'At The End Of The Day' could not have been said without it) and I have to really, really hate it."
Authoritarian. The style with which dictators and tyrants rule.
Avid fan. A big-mouth who could drink beer through an entire game and still be able to shout blasphemies at the opposing team.
Award-winning journalist. One with a Pulitzer or other major award. DEEP TRANSLATION: Essayist John Leo pins this on "any reporter employed three or more years that still has a pulse."CHAPTER 2
Backlog. That which happens to a caseload in courts. Any reporter knows that on a slow day a story can be patched together to fit the classic headline: "Judge Complains of Rising Case Backlog." See also Logjam.
Badly. People get badly injured, cars or houses badly damaged, but they are never injured or damaged nicely or well. "Badly" was once among words banned by copyeditors. Now copy editors have been replaced by bad spellcheck software.
Bagging. As in "bagging their quarry," this means shooting animals in the wild. Other euphemisms: culling, harvesting, thinning. But one reader of The Washington Post complains about coverage of "macho psychotics who hide in the woods and slaughter defenseless animals."
Band-Aid solution. Used when a solution does not work because not enough money has been spent. If more money is spent, the requisite cliché is that the problem will not go away "by throwing money at it."
Baron. Any owner of a brewery carries the title of Baron. Gangster Dutch Shultz was the Beer Baron of the Bronx in the 1930s.
Barrel-chested. A top-heavy guy. Bodyguards, bouncers, football players, drill sergeants and basso profundo opera singers can fit this description. Only men are barrel-chested. Women's chests are rarely, if ever, described in media other than in "adult" and "men's" publications.
Based. Artists, actors, writers are always based someplace, such as "Miami-based." They rarely live in a city. Military personnel, however, are stationed at army, navy, air force or Marine bases, but are never based at bases.
Basically. Filler word, often heard on TV news, which is another way of saying essentially or mainly.
Basking in the glow. Smug.
Battle of the bulge. Obligatory description of people trying to lose weight. Commonly used after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. "Portion Control Helps In Holiday Battle Of The Bulge," advised channel3000.com, of Madison, WI, on Nov. 24, 2011, adding, "Experts Warn Not To Skip Meals Over Thanksgiving Holiday." Most people under 60 have no idea what, where or when the original Battle of the Bulge was.
Bean counters. Accountants, bookkeepers, treasurers or the one who scrutinizes expense accounts. The baristi filling the coffee grinders at Starbucks are never bean counters since contabile dei chichi de caffé is too complicated Italian even for Starbucks.
Beautiful People. Plain folks with lots of money who spend more money on their hair than books, education, charity or the arts.
Behemoth. Adjective exclusively reserved for describing troubled nuclear or coal-fired power stations. "Seagull droppings cripple behemoth power plant."
Behind closed doors. As Joe Goulden explained in an email about this entry of what he terms Journo-Speak: "A not-so-subtle way of suggesting that the subject of a news story has something to hide, and thus is seeking seclusion away from prying eyes. A good example of using such wordage is when it's factually accurate, but contextually off-base. Consider this elbow-in-ribs writing in an article in The New York Times during the prolonged hearings into suspected wrongdoing by the Murdoch media empire in Britain: 'Mr. Murdoch has been in London since Thursday, conferring with a coterie of advisers, lawyers and communications consultants behind closed doors' (NYT, April 25, 2012, page one)." Perhaps The Times would have been happier had Mr. Murdoch chose to conduct his strategy session on the public green. It goes without saying that the decision to put the story on page one was made "at a meeting of top Times editors behind closed doors."
Beleaguered. Hounded by critics, most often in the media.
Bemused. The smile that secretly amused interviewees supposedly wear, except that the word actually means "muddled" or "stupefied."
Best movie of the year. Film reviewers' plaudit, even if it's only January, according to Marty Shindler, Los Angeles consultant.
Bewitched. Compulsory in every story about Halloween or Salem, Mass.
Bible-quoting. Prudish activist.
Biblical proportions. The writer doesn't really know exactly how big something is. Usually a natural disaster, like a flood or earthquake, and it's a combination of gigantic, huge, tremendous, humongous and big as all get-out.
Bildungsroman. Book reviewer shows off he wasn't entirely asleep in German 101. Reviewers who prefer plain English write, "coming of age."
Bilk. What swindlers do. Others steal.
Bitter. Damn cold. Heat is never bitter.
Blame. Something police, prosecutors, reporters say is the cause of something bad. Blame is usually laid on and if there is no question, blame is laid squarely on.
Blind eye. What is turned to illegal goings-on accepted by police, regulators, authorities, and others who get paid to enforce laws.
Blockbuster. A book, film, play, concert that has had big sales or audiences and the writer figures nobody will argue if it's described as such. Bombs are no longer called block-busters, even if today's are much more destructive than the originals in World War II, which could blow apart an apartment house, called a "block" in British English.
Blue Ribbon panel. A group of geezers, including at least one banker, a former politician, a retired judge, and a professor, none of whom have been recently indicted, and have nothing better to do. They are appointed by a governor or mayor who wants nothing done on something she or he wants everyone to forget about.
Body of a dead man. That which is found in "densely wooded areas." This is as opposed to "the body of a live man" which we never hear about.
Bold. Statements made by public figures that say something without the usual hedging.
Boldfacers. Entertainment writers' description of celebrities whose names are printed in bold-faced type in gossip columns.
Excerpted from Journalese by Paul Dickson, Robert Skole. Copyright © 2012 Paul Dickson and Robert Skole. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.