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Romps, Tots and Boffins

The Strange Language of News

Robert Hutton

(London Times)

Many years ago, indeed last century, when I was new to politics, there was a candidate selection in some bit of the country. I noticed that one of the possibles, a woman, kept being referred to as 'vivacious' and 'fun'. I asked a fellow journalist why this was. "Oh, she sleeps around a bit," came the answer.

Welcome to the strange language of news. What exactly is the difference between a 'humiliating climbdown' and an 'embarrassing U-turn'? Why one is just a tad worse than the other, of course.

Journalese is English but not as you know it. No one actually speaks this language. It exists only in written form. Robert Hutton, a journalist with Bloomberg, has done the nation a favour by collecting hundreds of examples of journalese and decoding them so that everyone can find out what's going on.

So the next time you see someone described as a 'bon viveur', you'll know he or she is a drunk. If someone 'doesn't suffer fools gladly', they are a nightmare boss. Anyone who is 'eccentric' is mad. The words 'confirmed bachelor'”, 'flamboyant', 'he never married' and 'well-turned out' mean that the subject is gay. Ladies' man? That, according to Mr Hutton, means: "They never managed to get the sexual assault charges to stick."

The book begins with a general list that includes such stalwarts as 'Arctic conditions' (snow) and 'bigwig' (a chief we don't like). There is 'eleventh hour' (which comes before 'last ditch' and, also, 'last gasp').

In journalese, 'foretastes' are always chilling, mixes are always 'heady' and 'glug' is always how champagne is consumed by 'fat cats'. Boffins are 'anyone with a job at a university, a science GCSE, or a lab coat'.

There are chapters for foreign correspondents ('one local' means 'my taxi driver', obviously) and fashion is decoded to explain that 'rocking a look' just means the writer needed another way to say 'wearing' or 'sporting'.

He covers sex - a 'lothario' is a love rat that we like - and 'menage a trois' is a phrase used by The Guardian in writing up a Sun story about a threesome.

Scandals start with a blunder and grow and grow until at least one person is 'beleaguered'. He also provides an informative 'fear scale' that begins with calm (fear has abated but will come back later, as in the headline, North Korean border calm) and ends with terror (which basically means a gun was involved).

Intrigued? I suppose, to use a bit of journalese, this book is a bit 'eccentric' itself. But mad or not, it is also an essential guide to finding out what you are reading about. Some people may dismiss this as a 'loo book' but, actually, it's so much more.

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