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Home > Publications > Quill > A conversation in 'journalese'


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Saturday, September 1, 2007
A conversation in 'journalese'

Paula LaRocque

Journalists often decry the professional jargon they have to wade through on certain beats to get to the meat of a message.

They speak of the difficulty of covering science, medicine and academe, for example, because of those fields’ specialized lexicons.

The truth is that most specialized fields generate specialized language, even journalism. You could even say especially journalism.

I’m talking about the hackneyed expressions prevalent in most newswriting. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll read that Joe Doe is “the architect of an unprecedented plan hammered out in wide-ranging discussions.”

Or that a storm “dumped more than 5 inches of rain and spawned hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail.”

Or that the “body of a dead man” (as opposed to the body of a live man) was found in a “densely wooded lot.”

Or that a “highly placed official is under fire for allegations of wrongdoing.”

Or that things are fueling or spurring or sparking or targeting or skyrocketing or spiraling or escalating …

The main difference between other jargons and the jargon of journalese is that, while other professionals speak their jargon, journalists don’t.

Even those who use journalese in their stories scorn it in speech. That must be because journalese is so clichéd it’s almost a caricature of itself; hearing it shows how ridiculous it has become.

Imagine two reporters meeting on the street, one asking what’s new and the other responding, “Well, in a surprise move ...”

If journalist did speak as they wrote, here’s how it might sound:

Duh: What’s going on at your journalistic facility?

Duher: Amid a burgeoning crisis spawned yesterday when the boss didn’t like a story I wrote, he hurled a litany, even a laundry list, of verbal insults at me and launched an unprovoked attack on my editor, 45.

That triggered a firestorm of criticism from other staffers, who weighed in on the issue and unleashed a new round of difficulty.

Duh: Such a heated exchange can quickly escalate into a defining moment, maybe even to a critical mass.

Duher: Yeah, tell me about it. In the wake of the controversy, it was suggested that my editor and I could level the playing field by our immediate withdrawal — specifically, by resigning.

Duh: Whoa, worst-case scenario!

Duher: We hotly contested the suggestion and mounted a staunch defense. But the idea was hailed by anonymous, high-ranking sources close to the boss who said it would send a very clear signal.

Duh: Send a clear signal, eh? More like a chilling effect. But, at the end of the day, this must present a daunting challenge for you.

Duher: We’re in the midst of negotiations, and my opponents’ hard-line stance seems to be softening. So the bottom line may be that there’s a thin line between a soft and a hard line.

Duh: Huh! Things may yet turn in your favor — if not in a sea change, maybe in a ground swell.

Duher: In a bizarre twist, my boss actually gave me a present. A dictionary. He said he’d like me to polish my communication skills, that my vocabulary was like … whatever.

Duh: So instead of a staggering defeat, maybe you’ve pulled off a stunning victory!

Duher: Well, at least I guess I’m not going to get shipped off to somewhere in the oil-rich Middle East.

Duh: Or to delegate-rich New York.

Both: Yuk, yuk.

Duh: So does this storm of controversy decimate your hopes for a promotion?

Duher: I’d say those hopes have suffered a sudden downturn. Or a steep decline. Or a sharp decrease. Maybe even a free fall.

Duh: But you’ll get your annual raise, at least?

Duher: I’d have to decline comment on that. Let’s just say I’m hopefully optimistic.

Duh: Or that the outcome is unclear. Or that it remains to be seen.

Duher [pausing]: Yeah. Duh.

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