Journalese is like a poker player’s tell: it shows when a story is flimsy

As George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. Perhaps all reporters should take a compilation of 'journalese' words more seriously.

Journalism is rarely confused with literature and news reports that rank as great journalism usually do so more for the quality of the story than for the writing. Those of us who make our living filing copy against ever-tighter deadlines often have to be satisfied with getting all the facts into a sensible order, with words in between them that make sense.

So perhaps it’s unfair that I’ve written a book that questions some of those words. For much of the past year, I have been collecting the phrases seen only in news reports, or those that carry quite a different meaning from the one on the surface. These include phrases such as “potentially fatal” (meaning: not actually fatal in this case), “arcane rules” (regulations we don’t understand) and “senior backbencher” (backbencher who returned our call) as well as clichés such as “chilling foretaste”, “lethal cocktail” and “crunch talks”.

Some newspaper reporters have taken the journalese project slightly personally. “I feel guilty every time I write a story, thanks to you,” one remarked to me recently. That wasn’t my intention and I could never have got such a long list so quickly without the enthusiastic support of other hacks.

Indeed, people’s general delight when I describe my journalese collection shows that, for many, these words are beloved friends. Who can read about “red-faced council chiefs”, “booze-fuelled rampages” (which often turn into “nights of shame”) or “two-timing love rats” without smiling?

And yet, as George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. It matters that politicians know any adjustment in policy will be written up as a “humiliating retreat”. In April this year, I was in the room when Vince Cable was asked whether he agreed with the man next to him that the pop band One Direction were paid too much. The then 69-year-old Business Secretary was unaware of the “teen pop sensations” and thought the question was about “one director”. As the man next to him was the head of the Institute of Directors, he believed he would be on fairly safe ground agreeing with him. As soon as the press conference ended, Cable’s error was explained to him and he gave an interview correcting his earlier words.

It was very funny but was it fair for newspapers to describe this as a “U-turn”? On the big question of executive pay, Cable’s view was unaltered, as was his absence of views on the smaller question of boy-band compensation.

My worry with journalese is that lazy writing goes with lazy thought. If all we write about are “cabinet rifts” (two adults disagree on the solution to a complex problem – always mention that their departments are on a “collision course”) and ministerial “slapdowns” (a politician we like has been rude about a politician we dislike), we risk missing bigger stories.

The political commentator Steve Richards argued in a BBC Radio 4 documentary this year that many of the “news judgements” made at papers come down to: “We write about this because we’ve always written about this.” We give house fires more prominence than housing policy. There’s a parallel point about the words we use. We write in journalese because that’s what the newspapers were written in when we were growing up.

Most of the strongest newspaper stories are free from journalese – they tell themselves. Journalese is like a poker player’s tell: it shows that the reporter knows the story is flimsy and he or she is trying to make it appear more solid.

So while I don’t want to make life difficult for fellow journalists and though I continue to love journalese, it may not be such a bad thing if reporters were slightly more reluctant to write that someone had “fleshed out” a policy (repeated the policy but with one new detail) in a “keynote speech”. (When I asked a Downing Street aide why all speeches were described this way, he said, “You lot won’t come otherwise.”)

Some things won’t change. Political scandals will continue to have ministers going from “defiant” to “embattled” to “beleaguered” to “shamed” (or, if an inquiry finds against them, “disgraced”). Yet I would like to see numbers move at speeds other than those of a “skyrocket” or a “plunge”. And perhaps we can find new ways for parties to adjust their political position, other than simply a “lurch to the left” or a “drift to the right”.

To those reporters left feeling guilty by the list of journalese, I suggest that they adopt the view of another “newsman”, who grabbed my book with delight and said: “Great! Is there a place where we can tick the words off when we’ve used them?”

Robert Hutton is the UK political correspondent for Bloomberg News. His book on journalese, “Romps, Tots and Boffins: the Strange Language of News”, is published by Elliott & Thompson (£9.99)

Mind your language: Orwell argued that the words we use shape our thought

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Grandpa was ill and wasn’t keen on climbing the volcano – but we forced him up all the same

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.

The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.

But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.

Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.

To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.

Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.

“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”

He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.

The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.

The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.

“Where is it?” I said.

“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”

Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.

But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.

“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution