WE JOURNALISTS are suffering an unseemly spate of adjectival excess, of adverbial inflation, of nounal anemia. We are word weary.
In the best of times, we wear out words in a hurry, burn them up the way a rocket consumes fuel. As a copy editor in pursuit of spent words for two decades, I have penciled through quite a few. These days, I chase them across a screen with a cursor.
Reporters in this electronic age are taking on pretensions. We once underdid, wallowing in the headline-ese tradition of set, net, flay or nix. Lately, though, the old lust to compress has turned prolix. Consider the mayhem wreaked on that lean verb, to press. By pressing, one created the noun pressure. No longer. Whereas previous governments pressed allies and adversaries, the Reagan administration pressures them. By a process almost mystical, reporters and -- less pardonably -- their editors have reached a page-one consensus that to pressure is twice as pushy as to press.
When we do fetch up a short noun, we often pick the wrong one. Take the uneasy matter of unrest. America's free press would protest right up to the supreme ombudsman any suggestion that editors have let Pieter W. Botha choose the words with which the current South African turmoil is reported. But there it is: "Eight blacks were killed in the latest unrest . . . , " "Yesterday's unrest included the 'necklace' burnings of six alleged informers . . . "
The imagery foisted upon reporters by the daily-unrest report of Pretoria's Bureau for Information harks back to an era when "the natives were restless" in every cabled account to reach "the civilized world" from nether regions. In unexotic South Africa, the foreign correspondents keep letting racial violence, civil war and insurrection masquerade as "unrest," and the Information Bureau's hoodwinkery of the world continues.
Correspondents, taken up with the word, are tirelessly spreading unrest to battlefronts from Beirut to Kabul.
We must watch out also for a current adverbial affectation, privately, as in "politician X refused to com-ment publicly, but he said privately that . . . " Here is this journalistic era's equivalent of H.L. Mencken's gaudy spectacle: A feeder at the public trough makes a private statement, not to his confessor or psychiatrist, but to a newspaper reporter, who, by mutual agreement, proceeds to print it! The reader is left to wonder, privately, what happened to the meaning of that word he used to understand.
Deeply is another such extravaganza, enlisted to plump up flat prose, ie. "Gadhafi, deeply depressed by . . . " Such adverbs loose inflation in the news columns. We suffer editorial unrest, a concern that if we leave some other politico in a state of simple depression, rather than the deep variety, no reader will feel the slightest anguish for him. Pretty soon, any depression, disappointment, even frustration, comes with deeply in tow.
Copy editors of the old school sat in sagging chairs, wielding a dictionary, soft-lead pencils, scratch paper, a modicum of taste, an allergy to libel and a rule or two to avoid pratfalls in print. The pencils and paper are gone, and with them the eyeshade, memorialized in the green screen of the video display terminal. The old rules, too, are coming unstuck, such as these: Avoid judgmental adjectives and view superlatives with suspicion.
This decade's unobjective adjectives of choice are harsh and worst. Journalists do pursue objectivity, most of them passionately. But years of this sticking to the facts produces a thirst for words that, in a few letters, might pungently position the reader.
Harsh entered this lexicon of overworked words when Margaret Thatcher launched her free-market economic efforts to reorient the British economy. A London correspondent, after several stories describing the prime minister's efforts, winged a lead paragraph past his editor referring to "Thatcher's harsh economic policies," and the loaded adjective was loose. It subsequently turned up 69 times in Washington Post stories on Thatcher and thereafter, in a familiar radiating pattern, in countless others on topics from winter weather to taxes on the poor.
Worst is worse. Best would be just as bad, but, as is well established, newspapers do not dwell on good news. Worst panders to newspapers' quest of the first, most, largest and costliest.
News is precedent, after all. But just as assuredly, the superlative worst, as opposed to first or deadliest, is judgmental, and is rarely susceptible to precise measure. This is not to say worst is never the best word. But watch out. Usually it connotes laziness on the part of the writer and the editor. A more apt word or phrase could make the reader realize why the story was a nonesuch, rather than having to take the reporter's word for it.
In recent files of foreign news it stood in for "most profound," "most persistent" and, in the third case, I'm not sure what:
"Last Thursday, Aquino encountered the worst crisis of her 11-month-old presidency . . . "; "Even Begin's worst critics concede . . . "; and , "Indications are that the worst casualty could be confidence in the Sarney government."
From time to time, a Post editor will ban a worn-out word. Kudos came a cropper when it started turning up inordinately. Alert dogs were winning kudos.
Another editor outlawed saying anything was "a first," on the basis that every time we did so, we got letters establishing valid antecedents.
Although handfuls of hapless nouns and adjectives recur distressingly in newspapers, an entire case -- the possessive -- is being crowded out. Again, its demise probably started with headline writers guarding their space. The sense could survive with the apostrophized S exorcized: Nixon Plan Nixed rather than Nixon's Plan Nixed. Nowadays, reporters will use fazing phrasing rather than an apostrophe s. Middle East correspondents write of Arafat loyalists rather than Arafat's supporters. Next came Marcos loyalists. It must go back to empire loyalists.
The secretary of state's stay in Moscow is known as the Shultz visit, rather than Shultz's visit or the visit of Shultz.
This situation contributes to the breakdown of the once fine distinction between nouns and adjectives. Why differentiate, asks the with-it generation. But some words, such as fast, change meaning as they pass from noun to adjective. Consider what would happen to the meaning of fast food, were the noun and adjective not kept distinct. In another generation, will we be able to distinguish between an eyeglass and a glass eye -- if either is still around?
Oh yes. I notice we're using increasingly increasingly. And the next time I'm offered a rare glimpse, I'm going to shut my eyes . . .
Lewis Diuguid is an assistant foreign editor of The Washington Post.