John Leo on Journalese, or Why English Is the Second Language of the Fourth Estate

Much of the difficulty of mastering journalese stems from its slight overlap with English. Imposing, for instance, when used to describe a male, retains its customary English meaning, but when used in reference to a female, it means “battle-axe.” In journalese, the word chilling has the very solemn task of modifying scenario (in nuclear weapons stories), reminder (in crime stories) and effect (any story on AIDS or the imminent repeal of the First Amendment), whereas in English it is merely something one does with white wine.

Some English words mean exactly the opposite in journalese. Multitalented, for instance, means untalented, and is used to identify applause-starved entertainers who prance about with amazing pep and perspiration, but do nothing particularly well. Community means noncommunity, as in the intelligence community, the gay community, or the journalese-speaking community. Under this usage, everyone shooting everyone else in and around Beirut, say, could fairly be described as the Lebanese community.

Feisty refers to a person whom the journalist deems too short and too easily enraged, though many in the journalese-speaking fraternity believe it is simply the adjective of choice for any male under five feet six who is not legally dead. The usage reflects the continual surprise among tall journalists that short people have any energy at all. Women are rarely feisty, although they usually meet the height restrictions. No journalist in America has ever referred to a six-foot male as feisty. At that height, men are “outspoken.”

In general, adjectives in journalese are as misleading as olive sizes. Most news consumers know enough to translate developing nations and disadvantaged nations back into English, but far smaller numbers know that militant means “fanatic,” steadfast means “pigheaded,” and self-made means “crooked.” Controversial introduces someone or something the writer finds appalling, as in “the controversial Miss Fonda,” and prestigious heralds the imminent arrival of a noun nobody cares about, as in “the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.”
Historians of journalese will agree that the first flowering of the language occurred in the description of women by splashy tabloids during the nineteen thirties and forties. In contrast to Pentagonese, which favors oxymorons (Peacekeeper missiles, build-down), the tabloids relied on synecdoche (leggy brunette, bosomy blonde, full-figured redhead). Full-figured, of course, meant “fat,” and well-endowed meant “big-breasted,” a signal to all concerned that a photo must accompany the story. Statuesque (too large, mooselike) and petite (too small, mouselike) were adjectives of last resort, meaning that the woman under discussion had no bodily parts that interested the writer. The only adjective feebler than statuesque and petite was pert, which indicated a plain, short woman whom the writer devoutly wished would disappear from the story.

One perennial challenge in journalese is the constant need to manufacture new euphemisms for fat. Words such as jolly and Rubenesque have long since been understood by the public and therefore discarded. One promising recent entry, “He has a heart as big as all outdoors,” while not totally successful, did manage to imply that all the rest of the gentleman’s organs and limbs are quite bulky as well. A Washington Post writer did better by praising a prominent woman’s “Wagnerian good looks,” which is far more delicate than saying, “She is not bad-looking for a massive Brunhild.” This is also a sturdy example of negative journalism, which works by combining a complimentary word with an apparently innocent but actually murderous modifier. “She is still pretty,” for instance, means “She is amazingly long in the tooth.” The favorite female companion of a recent presidential appointee was described in the Washington Post as having a “blushed, taut face,” which means she uses too much makeup and has had at least one face-lift.
In political journalese, an officeholder who has no idea what is going on can be best described as one who “prefers to leave details to his staff.” Or he can be described as having a hands-off or disengaged management style (i.e. his computer is down; he is out to lunch). Any Noriega-style gangster who runs a foreign country will usually be referred to as “strongman” until his death, and “dictator” thereafter. Strongman, unlike many terms in journalese, has no correlative. In the nineteen sixties, “Nicaraguan strongman Somoza’ was never balanced with “Cambodian weakman Prince Sihanouk.”

What to say about a public figure who is clearly bonkers? Since it is unsporting and possibly libelous to write, “Representative Frobisher, the well-known psychopath,” journalese has evolved the helpful code words difficult, intense, and driven. If an article says, “Like most of us, Frobisher has his ups and downs,” we are being told that Frobisher is manic-depressive. Any politician described as “suffering from exhaustion” has gone completely around the bend and he is now having his mail opened for him at a discreet institution.
In sum, journalese is a truly vital language, the last bulwark against libel, candor, and fresh utterance. Its prestigious, ground-breaking, state-of-the-art lingo makes it arguably the most useful of tongues, and its untimely demise would have a chilling effect, especially on us award-winning journalists.
From an essay, “Journalese, or Why English Is the Second Language of the Fourth Estate,” by John Leo in Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor, published in 1993 by W.W. Norton & Company.

The author’s note for John Leo says he joined U.S. News & World Report as a senior writer in 1988 and then became a contributing editor. He was a reporter for the New York Times from 1967 to 1969, then worked at Time for fourteen years, first as an associate editor and later as a senior writer. He has also held positions at the Village Voice and Commonweal. His Wikipedia page says he now is a writer and editor in chief of Minding the Campus, an independent, non-profit web site on America’s colleges and universities.

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