20 cliches of journalism

by Toby Manhire / 13 September, 2013
Influential new book sports raft of journalese examples.
A bombshell from noted hack Robert Hutton is set to blow the lid on journalistic cliches.

“Journalese has become my obsession,” he confesses in a commentary for the Daily Telegraph.

Every time I note an example, people send me 10 more. It’s everywhere, and once you understand it, it changes how you see the world. Last week, I turned on the radio to learn that “momentum is building for an attack on Syria”. To a non-speaker of journalese, that might sound exciting. I knew the real meaning: “the story hasn’t changed since last night.”


And yet, mindful perhaps of keeping his colleagues onside, Hutton says he’s no enemy of the stuff.

I can tell you all the things that are wrong with journalese: it’s clichéd; lazy writing betrays lazy thought; good stories don’t need it; it’s a code. And there are phrases I hate: “tragic tot” is an awful, glib way to write about a dead child, and its use should be a criminal offence. But I have a “shameful secret”.


The more I see, the more I like it. That’s why I don’t see my collection as an attack on fellow reporters. If I thought it was under threat, I would campaign for government protection. Perhaps we could demand road signs in two languages, as in Wales: “Accident Ahead – Long Queues”/“Horror Death Smash – Nightmare Jam”.


Some examples of the form, as documented by Hutton in his book, Romps, Tots and Boffins ... The Strange Language of News, and excerpted in the Telegraph and the Independent:

Acolytes Supporters of someone with whom we disagree.


Arcane Rules Ones we can't be bothered to explain.


Brutal dictator One who kills his opponents slowly. If he just has them all shot, use ''ruthless dictator’’. If our government could easily ''topple him’’, but can’t be bothered, use ''tinpot dictator’’.


Budding Someone under 20 who's good at something.


Clamour We’ve written two editorials about this. If there’s one in today, refer to a ''growing clamour’’.


Coffers Where organisations of which we disapprove keep money.


Considering The all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’ve considered something.


Deepened What happened to people’s difficulties last night.


Humiliating U-turn Any adjustment in policy.


Ill-fated Frankly, it was inevitable that anything that ''started as an innocent day out’’ would turn out to have ''ended in tragedy’’.


Influential Any group that can get a letter printed in a national paper.


Mystery surrounds In time, it may deepen. Right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.


Perfect storm Two bad things have happened to someone at the same time.


Potentially fatal Well, potentially. I mean, a peanut is potentially fatal.


Raft The standard unit of "measures". Under the imperial system, a "cocktail of measures" is an eighth the size of a raft. A "whole raft of measures" is a raft plus a cocktail.


Red-faced What council chiefs usually are after a "humiliating U-turn" over parking charges.


Set to Sounds like it means ''will’’, but if it turns out the story is wrong, you can point out it only actually means ''may’’.


Special Investigation A normal investigation, but with a picture byline for the reporter.


Troubled Small country currently enjoying a lull between civil wars.


War-torn Anywhere foreign correspondents know a decent bar for every night of the week.

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