Mon 4 Nov 2013
“The language of the news, like Latin or C++ [a programming language], has no native speakers,” columnist Lauren Collins writes in the Nov. 4 New Yorker.
Nonetheless, she adds, reporters are “sufficiently well versed in it” that British journalist Robert Hutton has written a guide to “the strange language of news.” It’s titled Romps, Tots and Boffins. A boffin, Collins explains, is British newspaper jargon for an egghead.
In the United States, such journalese typically appears in headlines when there is a lot of information to convey but little space to do it. Additionally, as Collins writes, US newspapers use words that rarely appear in the British press, such as coed (a female student at a coeducational college) and to mull (to consider).
At The Point Reyes Light, we used both “eye”and “mull” as shorthand for “consider.”
When I edited and published The Point Reyes Light, we had our own headline vocabulary, most of which we borrowed from newspapers elsewhere. When the word dispute didn’t fit, we’d write flap. When meeting, discussion, or conference was too long, we’d write confab. (It’s a legitimate variation of confabulation.)
Most other headline words had more obvious meanings: supe for a member of the Board of Supervisors; nix for reject; prexy for president (of an organization but not of the country); and probe for an investigation as well as to investigate.
In a Light headline, a cop would nab the suspect when there was no room for a deputy to arrest him. It was also common in Light heads, so to speak, for someone to either slate or set an event rather than schedule it.
And although the ampersand (&) had just about disappeared from formal writing, we at The Light often used it in headlines. After all, an & is neither informal nor slang. In fact, it once was the 27th letter of our alphabet. It originated around 100 AD in Roman handwriting and started showing up in written English during the 1830s.
Often misunderstood is the practice of spelling night as nite and light as lite or through as thru and though as tho. Many folks assume these nonstandard spellings are creations of Madison Avenue, but they were primarily popularized by the Chicago Tribune.
Joseph Medill, the paper’s publisher in the second half of the 19th century, became swept up in a small movement that wanted English spelling reformed to make it simpler.
Many readers were agast.
Prior to that, a few luminaries such as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie had also become advocates for simplified spelling.
President Theodore Roosevelt for several months in 1906 required the government printing office to use reformed spelling.
He rescinded his order, however, following protests from Congress and the public.
Recently while paging through a 1957 issue of The Baywood Press, as The Light was called for its first 18 years, I was surprised to find drought spelled as drouth, which was the way the Chicago Tribune was spelling the word at the time. But not all the Tribune’s spelling reforms were widely accepted. One failure was frate, which many readers didn’t recognize as freight.
Of course, the Tribune for more than a century was weird in many ways. For years it called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” although its motto was “An American Newspaper for Americans.” Traditionally a mouthpiece for ultra-conservative politics, the Tribune under Medill regularly editorialized against Roman Catholics and the Irish.
In his 1947 history of Tribune publishers, An American Dynasty, author John Tebble writes, “Joseph Medill did not let his educational lacks restrain him from taking a bold position on scientific matters.
“At one time or another he rode a half-dozen scientific or pseudo-scientific hobbies, such as simplified spelling, the sunspot theory and the blue-glass theory [a belief that people are healthier and crops grow better under blue glass]….
“Medill (right) attributed all natural phenomena to sunspots until one day he heard of the existence of microbes and immediately adopted this new explanation.
“Soon after, an unfortunate reporter writing according to Tribune policy asserted that the plague in Egypt was caused by sunspots. Medill went through the copy, crossed out the word ‘sunspots’ wherever it occurred and substituted ‘microbes.’”
Altho the Tribune in the last six years, has changed ownership, filed for bankruptcy, and is now only a fantom of the operation it once was, its influence on spelling can still be seen in newspaper headlines, as well as neon signs. And as ur now seeing on the Internet, social media are taking yet another toll on common English spelling.