The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gene Weingarten: Gene fingers journos in language imbroglio

(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Donald Trump has been blamed for creating an atmosphere in which the news media is vilified and distrusted. It’s true, but there might be a contributing factor that gets people suspicious of us. We sound weird.

I’ve lately been looking for words the media routinely uses that virtually no one else does. There are a lot of them.

Slay: People haven’t “slain” each other since they wore raiment of fine linen and had names like Ham and Hepzibah and Jehoshaphat. But journalists use the word for variation because we write about killing a lot. We also write about fires a lot, which is why we often call it a “blaze.” Sometimes a “blaze” results in a building having to be “razed,” two words never used in actual conversation.

Probe : Are we discussing doctors or little green men? If not, there is no excuse for this word.

Fingered: As in, “identified and blamed.” It’s a 1930s gangster term, now surviving in usage in newspapers — and almost nowhere else. For, um, some reason.

Arguably: Yes, this adverb does exist elsewhere. It’s all over academia, for one thing. But journalists have arrogated it to themselves in disproportionate numbers. That’s because we are forever drawing conclusions or making judgments that we know are true but that some others will likely challenge. If you write that Bob Dylan is the most influential popular musician of modern times, you will be right, but you just know that Ebenezer is going to write in indignantly about, say, Benny Goodman. But if you’ve said “arguably,” Eb is just going to have to sit there on the toilet, with his newspaper, and grumble. “Arguably” covers our butt.

Reportedly: This is a word made up by the media, also as a butt-covering device. It is the grandson of the now mainstream “allegedly.” If you say something “reportedly” happened, all it technically means is that at least one other news source has already reported it. If it is wrong, your butt is covered! This one gets abused a lot; eventually, some writer is going to be asked to defend his “reportedly” by pointing to his source, and he’ll be forced to admit that he was the one who’d reported it, just now.

Slated to: Technically, if things are “slated to begin,” or “slated to be discussed,” or some such, it means they are scheduled for some time in the future, an old and mummified usage apparently dating back to the early 1800s, when public plans were often recorded on blackboards made of slate. Modified slates were widely used by schoolchildren in the United States until the 1950s, which is when “slated to” should have died out. And it did! No one uses it! Except for American newspapers, which used it more than 3,000 times in the past month alone.

Vexing: No one has found anyone or anything “vexing” since Mr. Rochester bedeviled young Jane Eyre. Still, it’s been used more than 700 times in newspapers in the past three months, almost always to describe some political imbroglio.

Imbroglio, contretemps, foofaraw, brouhaha: News is about contention and disagreement. You can’t call all of these things a “fight.” You need an arsenal of fancy synonyms, even if, to be perfectly frank, you don’t quite know exactly what they mean. (And you don’t, fellow journos. Look them up. I did. It turns out I’ve been using them slightly wrong all my life.)

Strongman: If you call a foreign leader a “dictator” or a “despot,” you seem biased and always run the risk that the guy will send agents to kill you by stabbing your tush with a needle-tipped umbrella laced with curare. But “strongman” is deceptive. It almost sounds nice, while getting the point across. Some unintelligent, bloated, egomaniacal, authoritarian leader might even take it as a compliment.

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