Journalese is gobbledegook

Graeme Whitfield

My suggestion for a dictionary that can provide a translation to those words you only ever see in newspapers has proved highly popular as you will read later in the responses to this piece. It's clear that many journalists (and I've probably been as guilty as any in my time) are often lapsing into lazy clichés that have little or no relation to the way people speak in real life.

Here are some of the best:

TOT: child aged anywhere between six months and three years.
As in:  "Tot's autopsy photos stir courtroom emotions" - the Philadelphia Star, January 25.
As it is never said in real life:  "What a nice tot you have";  "How old is your tot now?"

SLAMMED: criticised.
As in:  "Celtic boss Gordon Strachan has slammed the fees paid by English clubs for average players and claims it is spoiling the market."  — Clubcall, January 22.
As it is never said in real life:  "That's a terrible decision. I slam it."

ACE: footballer, especially a forward.
As in:  "Tottenham ace set for Parkhead?"  —, January 24.
As it is never said in real life:  "Newcastle could do with a new ace if we're going to avoid relegation."

STOPPER: footballer, especially a defender or a goalkeeper.
As in:  "Another goalkeeper who could be on the move is Aston Villa stopper Thomas Sorensen. He is wanted by ambitious QPR after they ditched plans to sign Stefan Postma  — another former Villa stopper."  — Metro, January 24.
As it would never be said in real life:  "I hear Newcastle are buying a new stopper from Red Star Belgrade."

QUIZZED: asked some questions.
As in:  "Man quizzed by murder detectives." BBC Online, January 2.
As it would never be said in real life:  "Sorry I'm late, dear  — I was being quizzed by my boss over that report I wrote."

BUNGLE: make a mistake, especially of a council officer.
As in:  "Our taxes must not be wasted on exorbitant legal fees to put right yet another bureaucratic bungle."  — Yorkshire Evening Post editorial, January 4.
As it would never be said in real life: "Oops. That's a bit of a bungle."

CAGED: put in jail.
As in:  "A teenager has been caged for 16 months after battering a man in a drugs row."  — Greenock Telegraph, January 24.
As it would never be said in real life:  "I hear that bloke from across the street has been caged for not paying his taxes."

REVELLERS: people who are having a drink in a pub/nightclub.
As in:  "A crime busting campaign that included giving condoms to Christmas revellers cut crime by 16 per cent."
As it would never be said in real life:  "Blimey, it's a bit packed in here. Shall we go somewhere where there are fewer revellers?"

BOFFINS: someone who works in a university (or is just a bit brainy).
As in:  "Drinking beetroot juice can help lower blood pressure, say boffins at St Bart's Hospital in London."  — The Sun, February 6.
As it would never be said in real life:  "The boffin has given me a terrible mark for my essay."

SWINGEING (as used to described cuts): large.
As in:  "Will Salmond's  £70million bribe to local government be enough to stave off swingeing cuts?" - Daily Record, February 22.
As it would never be said in real life:  "You've lost a swingeing amount of weight. Are you on a diet?"

LAMBAST: criticise.
As in:  "Is Ferguson right to lambast football agents or are they simply doing their job?  — BBC Online, February 22.
As it would never be said in real life:  "I lambast you for that terrible decision."

SOURCE: person who's told a journalist something and we want to make sound mysterious.
As in:  "The Arizona Diamondbacks have reached an agreement on a minor league contract with veteran outfielder Trot Nixon, according to a baseball source."  — ESPN, February 21.
As it would never be said in real life:  "Who told you that?"  "Oh, a source."

BRAVE: someone with a disease.
As in:  "Councillor loses brave cancer battle."  — East Anglian Daily Times, February 7.
As it would never be said in real life:  "My brave boyfriend's battling a cold today."

FRACAS: a fight.
As in:  "Three men were arrested last week after a fracas that resulted in a police officer being arrested."  — Foster's Daily Democrat, February 21.
As it would never be said in real life:  "Look over there  — there's a fracas."

COFFERS: bank account.
As in:  "The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show tax receipts were brimming over at the public coffers in January."  — Accountancy Age, February 19.
As it would never be said in real life:  "I'm going to pay that cheque into my coffers."

FURY: mild annoyance (which a journalist has to flam up to get his story onto the front page).
As in:  "Six post office branches will be closed in Waltham Forest under plans announced this week, to the fury of customers and staff."  — This is London, February 19.
As it would never be said in real life: "The corner shop has sold out of Mars bars. I react with fury."

* Graeme Whitfield writes for The Journal online:

Below is a selection of journalese from people who responded to Graeme's article.


I also like "grilled."

Journalism: Council Grills Former Police Chief

Everyday life: "My wife grilled me last night."

Peter Fox:

English : Panned
American : Planned


What about "snarled"?

'Traffic was snarled this morning due to an accident'

Who says that? I HATE that word!



Rice tapped for secretary of state.

Guess what honey, I was tapped for a promotion at work today!


FLEE: to run away or escape from danger

As in:  "More Pakistanis Flee to Afghanistan"  — The Associated Press, February 20

As it would never be said in real life: "A hurricane is coming. We must flee!"

Adrian Cronauer:

How about "cookery" as in, "writing on everything from newsroom life to ethical living, cookery, TV reviews . . ." etc.
At least here in the States, I'd never say "My wife is excellent at cookery."


What about, "Roiled," as in, the stock market was roiled. Who says that?

Andrew Bell:

Maybe we could try composing a story that uses ALL of the words


When I played, a stopper was, in fact, a specific defensive position (not goalie) in a 4/2/4/1 play configuration and I have heard it used in a context very similar to the one presented. Just sayin'.

Bruce Wayne:

Here's another word for you -Tire iron.
Frequently used by newspeople but most likely that 99% of the public has never seen a tire iron unless they work in a truck tire store or maybe if they are over 60 years old.
Its been about 80 years since ANY vehicle was steam powered.

Paul T:

SHUTTER: for a business closing stores or factories due to a DOWNTURN(another word!).

"GM reported this morning shuttering major factories due to a labour dispute."

Ed Caudwell:

'The corner shop has sold out of Mars bars. I react with fury.'

These few words sum up my entire life.


Entertainment journalists that use the words "garner" and "nod".

Who in real life says "Juno garnered 4 Oscar nods".

Martin Crim:

PACT: Any contract, treaty, or agreement

As in: "Bush Inks Nuke Pact"

As it would never be said in real life: "We had a pact to meet for lunch at 12."

INK: To Sign (see above)

LOCAL MAN: Guy from around these parts

As in: "Local Man Wins Best Beets at Fair"

As it would never be said in real life: "I think he's a local man."

(Or see any issue of The Onion.)


How 'bout "plethora?"


Flam is another great example.


ENGULFED: completely surrounded
As in:  "Firemen responded to a house fire last night but found the house engulfed in flames"

As it would never be said in real life:  "What a great bonfire you've started! It's really engulfed in flames."


Wow, a veritable plethora of terms!


I have seen an awful lot of "kitsch" and "hubris" lately.

Hank Fox:

Seeing the words "touts" and "decries" in headlines here in the U.S. are pet peeves of mine.

I know I've never used them in everyday speech.

Tom Lake:

Maybe journalists study here in the USA. We use most of those words in everyday conversations. In fact, just the other day a source revealed that a Canadian ace was lambasted and slammed after a night spent with revelers and could be caged for his role in a fracas involving a tot.

Darrell Pittman:

ACE is often used in the U.S. to desribe a top-notch baseball pitcher. "The Houston Astros sent their ace pitcher Roy Oswalt to the mound Monday..."

Joey Mo:

Nonsense. I know I might get slammed for saying this, and although I never like to get caught in a fracas, I'll be brave and say that at least five or six of those words are used by normal people from time to time, sometimes, more than once in the same sentence. I might get lambasted for failing to cite a source, but it's true.


Similar to "fracas" is "melee". Of course, if you've ever been stabbed in the melee or fracas, you know just how painful it can be.


"Lashed Out" is a favourite.

Journalese: "The candidate lashed out at his critics who suggested that his tax cut plan was off the mark."

As it isn't in real life: "I lashed out at my wife when she gave me gave me cheddar instead of Stilton."

Pax Syesta:

ROW: a noisy disturbance or quarrel
Blair cleared in dossier row

The BBC loves this one.

Benjamin P:


This one is in the MS Word Thesaurus, but I have never, ever heard it. "I have to quit smoking so much; It's extremely deleterious."

Bob Hawkins:

SOLONS: meaning "local politicians."

Journalists: "Weathersfield Solons Pass Rezoning Measure"

Humans: "Our solons are useless, that pothole still hasn't been filled"

Jennifer Peebles:

A few others, from an American journalist who admits to having used a couple of the words Graeme listed:

LAUD, LAUDED -- to praise, praised. "Councilman Smith lauded the committee's decision to ban left-handed people from breathing inside the city limits." See also PLAUDIT(S) and KUDOS.

SQUIRES and SOLONS -- Members of a governing body, such as a county commission or local city council.


CHAGRIN and IRE - Closely related to FURY listed above.

Shirley Gregory:

I'll add "temblor," for all those reporters/editors who get tired of writing, "quake" or "earthquake" over and over again.


BLASTED - "Mayor Blasts Tax Increases"

Cheeseburger Brown:

What about "sea-change"?


2 Responses to "Journalese is gobbledegook"


Mon, 02/25/2008 - 12:48
What about &#39;pal&#39; to refer to friends? It&#39;s a favourite of the red tops like <em>The Sun</em> in the UK<em>. </em>I&#39;d be ready to make a quick exit if a drunk standing next to me in a bar said: &#39;Ok, pal.&#39;<br />
chris's picture


Mon, 02/25/2008 - 16:54
<p><strong><u>Chris Gaynor</u></strong></p> If you read the Daily Mail today, which I very rarely read, The Commons story on Michael Martin begins: "The pressure was ratcheting up last night on HOC Speaker Michael Martin." When I looked this word 'ratcheting' up in the dictionary it said it meant a series of notches on a bar in which a catch engages to prevent backward movement. I'm assuming the writer meant that the pressure on old Martin was yet to go away - or was not meant to go backwards? Who would in real life say: "Pressure is ratcheting up on our local football team to win the league this year?"