My colleague and grammar policeman over at You Don't Say, John McIntyre, has taken exception to the word "slay."
Now, as someone who has spent years writing the same story about crime, finding new ways to describe the seemingly inevitable demise of the forsaken "city man," limiting word usage is, well, a challenge.
But, what would a job be without a challenge?
Translating the language of cops and bureaucrats into something we can all understand is one of our basic functions at the paper. It's also a goal of cops themselves, as they slowly get rid of the "10-codes" and start using "plain English" over the police radio.
I just wrote that "cops are starting to talk like the rest of us." I guess it's fair that journalists start writing like the rest of us as well.
But there are just so many ways you can say that someone died. We try not to repeat the same word too often, especially in the same paragraph. And cop writers are more limited than others in that have legal hurdles to cross -- can't call it a murder until a conviction in court; while every murder is a homicide, not every homicide is a murder; and so on.
And now apparently "slay" is out. Another verbal weapon retired for good.
"For tabloid journalism of the 1930s: "gangland slaying." And for 1950s slang: "You slay me." But you won't hear it much on people's lips today, and you won't find it much in published writing, apart from newspaper accounts of homicides."
I checked my own clips, and I'm happy to say I found the word "slay" linked to my byline in only two stories, and one was in a quote. A copy editor once put it in a headline on a story in which the word did not appear.
It was a different story for the word "slain," however. That word has found its way into 259 of my articles, most recently Jan. 3. I'll let John decide whether this variant is as bad as the original.
John refers to a fun blog, "Words journalists use that people never say." Here's a sampling of some transgressions that crop up in police prose:
fled on foot = ran away
high rate of speed = speeding
physical altercation = fight
verbal altercation = argument
blunt force trauma = injury
discharged the weapon = shot
transport the victim = take him/her
lower extremities = legs
officers observed = police saw
I'll even throw in one of my own -- failed to negotiate a curve = ran off the road.
I'm all for ridding our copy of jargon, and shortening phrases. The challenge, of course, is to write smooth, understandable copy, often translated from inarticulate police reports and legal documents, and stay within the confines of the precise rules and restrictions of our craft.
There isn't a lot of room for poetic license.
But for now, I'll try to find more artful ways of describing someone's demise.