Listen to this article
Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News, by Robert Hutton, Elliott and Thompson, RRP£9.99, 135 pages
When asked how he is, a sports writing colleague is apt to reply: “I’m feeling a bit lacklustre today.” Self-parody, you see: lacklustre being a word used almost entirely by journalists, mainly sports writers, especially football writers. Has anyone ever used it in normal conversation? Unlikely.
Lacklustre is part of a vast lexicon of words used by the press to convey something entirely different to their normal meaning, or never used outside the press at all. Journalism is normally recommended as a profession to youngsters who show some flair for writing. When employed, they are expected to learn a dialect that bears a passing resemblance to English, like pidgin: journalese.
Robert Hutton, the UK political correspondent of the Bloomberg news agency, has set himself up as the Dr Johnson of this strange, widely read, hardly spoken, language. It arose from a 4am conversation among journalists stuck in an airport while following David Cameron. It then became a sort of cult that eventually engulfed, if not the prime minister, at least the opposition leader Ed Miliband, who told Hutton one day: “Your journalese game is obsessive. I woke up at 2am thinking, ‘gainsay’.”
Hutton says it was not intended to be a game but concedes it could be: give each player a different paper and award a point for every word of journalese found, double points for the player assigned the FT. (That’s a compliment, I think.)
Romps, Tots and Boffins has the look and feel of a Christmas potboiler, though it is much funnier than most. For example:
Westminster source – the reporter at the desk next to me.
Westminster sources – the barman has heard it too.
The literary pages are not exempt:
Page-turner – compelling dross.
Tome – of course I haven’t read it.
Most of our profession’s favourite words are here: don, doff and dub; rapped, reeling and raunchy; swoop, slam and secret dossier; woe, wantaway and wrangle; bombshell, bigwig and boffin – which denotes a scientist but has not been used by a non-journalist since about 1955. A similar guide exists to US journalese, though American papers do tend to be considerably less raunchy.
There is a kind of logic behind journalese. Some of it is code, designed to deflect legal action. And many of the words became popular because they fit easily into headlines: “rap” works far better than “criticise”. As news migrates to the web, that is becoming less relevant – yet, if anything, journalese is becoming more prevalent, spreading from the popular press downwards to local papers and upwards to the once-fastidious posh ones.
It is all completely out-of-hand now, and Hutton appears to have a serious underlying purpose: the hope that all of us might be shamed into writing more clearly. Oddly, he hasn’t found room for lacklustre. Sport is not his subject, and that section is a bit thin. Good. All the more excuse for another edition.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist