Beset by Acrimony

Words that no one uses outside journalism

Time for a rant.

Journalists seem to love certain words that no one actually uses in normal conversations. Have you remarked on the “acrimonious” divorce your friends are going through? (Almost 300 hits in Nexis in the past month.) How about those “temblors” that have shaken the world recently”? (More than 300 uses in the past month.) Did you ever note that your favorite team has been “beset” by injuries? (Nearly 700 hits.) Have you ever said that you were “slated” for surgery next week? (More than 3,000 hits.)

All of the words are perfectly good English, but people just don’t talk that way. They’re really jargon—non-idiomatic uses of words that rarely appear anywhere but news reports.

Journalism, written or spoken, should be conversational, so it can make a better connection with the audience. Depending on audience, the language can be informal, even slangy. But these words go in the opposite direction.

“Acrimonious” has an nice onomatopoeic ring to it, a harsh word for a harsh relationship. But it’s not very familiar to many people. Why it has replaced “bitter,” “caustic,” or even the slightly more colloquial “nasty” is anyone’s guess, but it’s definitely a favorite of journalists.

In some cases, as in the case of “temblor,” writers are probably looking for a synonym for “earthquake,” “quake,” or “tremor.” A more obvious synonym, “trembler,” shows up only twice to “temblor’s” more than 300 appearances in the past shaky month. “Temblor” is a reach outside conventional usage, the way “canine,” “pup,” “Fido,” and “man’s best friend” are far-out synonyms for “dog.”

“Beset” is a great headline word, but in text, where space is at less of a premium, there are better, more fluid alternatives: “hobbled,” which has the benefit of also being literally true in many cases; “plagued,” which while not literally true is more conversational; “troubled”; or even “bedeviled.”

“Slated” also probably arose because it’s shorter than “scheduled.” But it’s not shorter than “set,” so why do so many news articles or anchors say that “the trial has been slated for next week, instead of “the trial has been set for next week”? If you’re really looking to save words, how about “the trial is next week”?

It’s hard to imagine some terms ever becoming common usage. Joe Barnes, for example, wrote to CJR to complain about traffic reporters who use words that no one can understand. “Maybe it’s just me,” he wrote, “but I’ve commuted by car my entire life. I have no idea what a ‘gore point’ is. Heck, I don’t even know if I’m spelling it right. Or how about the ‘collector distributor lanes.’”

No, Mr. Barnes, it’s not just you. It’s unlikely that anyone ever called home to say, “Honey, I’ll be late because a pileup in the gore has snarled traffic in the collector distributor lanes.” Or ever will.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.