It’s Shocking the Words (Hot! Sexy!) That Editors Will Use to Get Your Attention

By Jack Limpert

The indefatigable, clever, often funny Paul Dickson is out with a new book, Journalese: A Dictionary for Deciphering the News. Co-authored with Robert Skole, it’s full of buzzwords and phrases and pokes fun at some of the special language that journalists use. Here is some of their effort at decoding newspaper social coverage: A stunning gown means low-cut, bubbly means brainless, cozy means 400 of the 500 people invited didn’t show up, striking means can’t believe anyone would dress like that, and so on.

In a section called Headlinese, they explain “the need to squeeze the heart of a story into a few words that attract readers’ attention” and they list many of the favorite short words of headline writers along with what they really mean. Particularly useful are three- and four-letter words like axed. chop, curb, duo, eye, gird, hail, hike, hit, hub, hype, ink, ire, nab, nip, nix, out, pact, pen, pol, quiz, rip, rout, slam, soar, spar, stir, tap, tiff, tout, vie, and woo.

When I saw “the need to squeeze the heart of a story into a few words that attract readers’ attention,” my magazine brain went to all the cover lines the Washingtonian has used over the years to sell copies on newsstands.

Cover lines have to be immediately understandable—not much subtlety, no making the potential reader think too much, be careful of too much cleverness, irony rarely works. The main newsstand strategy of city magazines, and lots of other magazines, is assuming that readers are most interested in useful information, something that will make their lives more interesting or better. That means lots of cover lines like top doctors and best restaurants (the two most reliable cover lines of city magazines).

Looking back at the words the Washingtonian has been putting on covers to sell magazines, I picked 12 issues from a recent year and here are the cover words we used most often:

Great, best, beautiful, fun, favorite, inside, big, bargain, hot, new, delicious, top, friendly, charming, cheap, cool, real, undiscovered, smart, talented, bold, wild, classical, popular, award-winning, romantic, hall-of-fame, youthful, expert.

There also were “lose 75 pounds” and “without tears” and “insider’s guide” and “best and worst” and “wins and losses.”

I was surprised not to find “free”—the most powerful word in retailing—on one of the covers.

The magazine distributors often told us that we were among the three top-selling magazines on Washington-area newsstands, beaten out only by the weekly People and one monthly magazine: Cosmopolitan. So I looked at a recent issue of Cosmo, and these are the sell words they used on a recent cover:

Sex, hard-core, secret, sexy, naughty, free, fun, butt, sexiest, hottest, vagina.

It’s hard to match that but as my daughter, then 16, once told me, “Dad, don’t worry about it. Most of us outgrow those magazines pretty quickly”

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