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You slay me

The Baltimore Sun

Indulge me for a moment while I repeat something I have been trying to get journalists to hear for twenty years.

One reason that newspaper journalism has been faltering is the stubborn adherence of journalists to a language no one else uses. The readers who are comfortable with journalese, who formed the newspaper habit early, are climbing the golden staircase,* and the succeeding generations are not developing the habit. Why? One reason might well be that journalese sounds odd and unappealing to them.**

This meditation was sparked by a tweet from the admirable Jim Romenesko directing me to an article by Bob Ingrassia, "Words Journalists Use That People Never Say."

You will recognize them: altercation, police report language caught by reporter echolalia; blaze for fire; probe for investigation, a piece of headlinese cropping up in text.

One that he doesn't mention, but which I have been repeatedly trying to get out of copy, like grit from the lettuce, is slay. Slay is a perfectly good word. For the Authorized Version of the Bible: "And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." 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.

Not that I am suggesting that newspaper journalists should attempt to sound hip. Dear God, the outcome would be grisly beyond belief. But I do suggest, and have been suggesting all these years, that they should attempt more conversational language. Specialized language will have to come in with specialized subjects, such as law, medicine, science, the fine arts. But purging the cop speak, bureaucratese, and the journalese of half a century ago in favor of the language adult non-journalists use would be a step toward attracting, what do you call them?, readers.


*A wag among my colleagues once suggested that we should change the "Obituaries: logo to "Subscriber Countdown."

**Well, also, I'm compelled to admit, because so much of newspaper journalism has been, and remains, dull. Within the past week I edited an article on a subject of widespread interest, but the writer, an alchemist with a facility for transmuting gold into lead, contrived to make the story as pedestrian as a zoning board meeting. Nothing much I could do about it as an editor. As Mr. Trollope said, "One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it."

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