Thirty words journalists should stop using … and a simple test to make people reconnect with our work

The Riddler - really responsible for all the crimes police are struggling to solve?
The Riddler – really responsible for all the crimes police are struggling to solve?

A while ago, I wrote a blog post arguing that overnight publication of newspapers wasn’t contributing to newspaper sales declines. It’s a view I still hold, because in the age of instant communication, how can words placed on a page, then sent to a printing press, then distributed by van possibly compete with the internet for breaking news? Answer: You break the news no-one else does. And that isn’t restricted to putting papers out at lunchtime.

Anyway, the post got picked up by Holdthefrontpage, which wrote an article saying I was ‘hitting back’ at opposing views expressed by, among others, ex-Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson. That stopped me in my tracks. Was I hitting back at Steve? I was, truth be told, prompted to write the post by his opinions, but was I hitting back? Nope. But I supposed in the journalist’s dictionary, I was.  I know Steve well. We disagree on a lot of things but we also get on.

Anyway, it would be a little hypocritical and thin-skinned for a journalist to complain of the use of journalese in an article, but it did get me thinking about the words we use when we’re reporting on the world we live in. As local and regional journalists, we pride ourselves on being a window on the world, but how clear is that view when we use words which, bluntly, wouldn’t be used in the same context in real life?

Over the next few days, as I read newspapers, I kept stumbling across words people simply wouldn’t use in real life. With my digital hat on, this potentially causes an SEO problem in headlines. To succeed online, you need to use the words real people use (no-one in Birmingham calls the Christmas market the ‘Frankfurt Christmas Market’ they call it the ‘German Christmas Market’). And having been on the receiving end of countless phonecalls from people complaining about the words used in an article, I can’t help but think rewriting the journalese dictionary would help win over more people.

So I wrote this tweet:

And it started a bit of a conversation. Other nominations included:

1. Love rat:

2. Probe:

3. Slammed:

4. Eatery:

5. Mystery surrounds:

6. Council chiefs:

backed up by this rather succinct argument:

7. Blasted:

8. Miracle:


9. Nightspot (or nitespot, I suppose):

10. Revellers

also mentioned by:


11. Down Booze

12. Wrecking spree

13. Provincial

14. Tzar (unless, obviously you’re talking about the Tsars):

15. Boffin

16. Cold Snap

17. Bids

18. Break Down (unless in the car)

19. Special

20. Drama (unless, of course, it’s about Eastenders)

21. Pot of cash

22. Plumped

23. Coffers

24. Best Ever:

25. Completely destroyed:

26. Right royal:

27.  Fracas:

28. Anything other than ‘said’:

29. Up in arms:

But the most frequently used word was Quizzed:

Here it is again:

Which as one person observed created this image:

And this one:

Only we use it in gravely serious situations. Why?

Ok, so it’s all slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a serious point to be made here: If our language is so far removed from the words people use normally, is it any wonder they don’t take us as seriously as they used to?

It might be a big leap to make, but if you applied the ‘would this word be used in the pub?’ test to everything written, we’d a) have news stories more suited to search but, and perhaps more importantly, b) news stories which people were more likely to respond to.

You can read a much more eloquent piece on journalese here, and this Wikipedia page shows the American side too.


39 thoughts on “Thirty words journalists should stop using … and a simple test to make people reconnect with our work

  1. My favourite bit of journalese is not a word but a word arrangement. “David Cameron last night admitted…”. I imagine every journalist speaks like “I yesterday woke up early as I that morning had a meeting.”

    1. With you on that one! As a copy editor I change it whenever I see it. My bugbears are “war-torn” (“war-torn Afghanistan” – as opposed to “great place for a family holiday Afghanistan”?) and, similarly to “a right royal” whatever, “a very [ADJECTIVE] [NOUN]”, usually along the lines of “a very British [whatever]”.

  2. I would add the word “dubbed” to that excellent list – as in “…dubbed the ‘Ice Cold Killer'” etc. “Dubbed” implies that some authority has carefully named the subject – when it’s usually the news outlet itself that has done all the dubbing.

  3. I really wish tabloids would stop using brave and tragic to describe people with disabilities or illnesses. It’s incredibly offensive to trivialise what can be a difficult situation for all those concerned. Most people with disabilities are just getting on with their lives and don’t need tabloid-induced pity for their condition. Also on the ban list – “battling”. As in battling cancer (or other life-shortening illness). It’s one of the worst clichés and gets recycled daily.

    1. Hi Louise – thanks. Take your point about brave and tragic, they are needless additions. I’m torn on battling though – a family member had cancer and I saw at first hand what they went through and I did use the word battling quite a lot because it did feel like a battle and it took real fight to beat it. That said, battle can also suggest a personal lapse leads to defeat, which is unfair in this context, so can see both sides.

      1. I see your point too, having also watched a family member die of cancer – it can be a real fight, My objection to “battle” is the moral weight it carries, that if you don’t battle cancer you failed, you let the side (ie, everyone else with it) down. And sometimes battling is not in the patient’s best interests – if the cancer is really advanced, the treatments may prolong life but for a while but exact a terrible cost. And there’s a choice issue – because of that, patients may choose not to battle but accept palliative care instead. It’s a word that journalists need to use with great caution.

  4. I totally agree with a lot of these, that they are lazy journalistic shorthands that have become cliched, but I also don’t necessarily think people should and want to read as they speak. aural and written language are two different forms of communication with different purposes and for that reason I think they should be different, whilst also taking into account the SEO implications – a very valid and important point made here.

    1. HI Ruth, I agree on the different uses of language between speech and written word, but at the same time, I think the list above is full of phrases which people wouldn’t use in either – they are words journalists have changed the meaning of to soup up copy.

  5. What a load of pompous garbage from a bunch of know-it-all “journalists”. How about this? Rule 1: All words are allowed as long as people can understand what you’re talking about. Rule 2: Now just stop worrying about it and go and think about something important, like what to have for tea.

    1. Missed the point, much? The idea is to try to write in language that ordinary people would use, not cliches. Cliches are used by dull people to produce dull writing that turns readers off. If you think it’s ‘pompous’ to try to write in an interesting and engaging manner, and unpompous to write in a string of cliches, I hope never to read anything else by you.

    2. Hi Tim, thanks for the comment. I don’t see it as being know-it-all journalists, I see it as looking at what we do and asking why we do it. I think your starting point of ‘write what you want so long as people understand it’ is fine, if you’re more interested in pleasing yourself with what you’ve written, rather than thinking about what your audience wants and expects.

  6. Czar perhaps? We must play the cliché game sometime. You replace one or more of the key words in an expression with the word cliché. If it is readily recognisable then it’s a cliché. A cliché in time is worth… three in the cliché.

  7. If we are still playing can we include any report that suffixes any incident, no matter how trivial, with the phrase -gate. It is the laziest kind of journalism imaginable. Also sports editors labeling stories as “exclusives” when exactly the same story appears in several other publications.

  8. I would almost suggest ‘eyes’ … Mayor ‘eyes’ sex change … but it’s convenient and just four characters. But please let’s take ‘comfortably’ away from ‘resting comfortably’ after some horrific accident or open-heart surgery. I explain on my site, (hope the free plus go ok!)

  9. Wordwork and Tim Dixon have a point here. A lot of these shorthand phrases are used because they fit in headlines, or because they give a sense of urgency and excitement that lures in the reader. Perhaps that’s dishonest – but I’m much more likely to read a story headlined ‘Charity boss slams council chiefs’ than ‘Chief executive of charity writes letter politely admonishing the council’s leader and two strategic directors’. If we want to education, inform and entertain, sometimes we need to leverage the latter to get to the rest.
    Words that our audiences don’t understand or feel alienated by are clearly a bad idea, but we need to hesitate before denouncing all the above words as ‘lazy journalese’ – especially when the first word cited (rapped) does actually mean to criticise, and meant that long before it was anything to do with sung speech.

    1. You’re quite right James – it can swing too far the other way. I think I’m saying it’s words taken out of a modern-day context,or which people don’t use regularly, should be used less often rather than just keeping it in the paper because it’s part of a journalistic dialect.

    2. We’re not talking about headlines, James, we’re complaining about headlinese being used by reporters in their stories. Of course headline writing has to be sharp and short. But headline words don’t belong in the body copy.

  10. David, I am not at all interested in “pleasing myself with what I’ve written.” That’s actually the opposite of what I said, which was that the important thing is that other people can understand what’s written.
    I wrote “know-it-all” because I was annoyed by the arrogance of people who think they should have the power to tell other people what words they cannot use – especially good English words like “riddle”.
    You say that “rapped” should be banned from headlines unless the person is “actually rapping.” You do realise that a word can have more than one meaning, don’t you? “Rap” meant “hit” long before it acquired its new musical meaning. And a person can be hit (rapped) in a figurative (non-literal) sense. Or do you want to ban metaphors too?

    1. Hi Tim,
      Apologies if you thought I was aiming at you personally, that wasn’t the intention. I think we agree that it’s important that people understand what’s written. But I would go a step further and question whether just understanding the word is enough. Shouldn’t we ask whether it’s a word people would regularly use? And if they don’t regularly use it -in a given context – then why do we continue to use it? Riddle is a good example – when I read of a ‘murder riddle’ for example, I think the word riddle lessens the seriousness of the crime. I’ve also spoken to people who were upset by the way they were treated in a paper – and it came down to the types of words used, rather than the overall story.
      On rapped – yes, I know it can mean more than one thing, but I’d suggest we use words in the context people use them. To that end, we’re less likely to hear someone say “I rapped him for that” than we are: “I rapped that song.”

  11. I’m a reporter in Australia. I’ve got some for you.
    1. Well-underway. (Hate that one)
    2. “Mediocre quote”. That is the way someone described…. (as opening sentence)
    3. As well as. This is just wordy, just say and.

    1. Notice two more at work today.
      1. Carnage. Have a large number of people died, really?
      2. Decimated. A Latin derivative for killing every tenth soldier in a particular a legion, not winning the cricket
      3. Completely destroyed. Destruction is complete.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s