Leading Questions

How some journalism terms were born

The Associated Press recently said it would stop using some wire-service jargon as instructions on its stories. Among them were “sted,” for “instead of”; “graf” for “paragraph”; and “lede,” for the top of a story. Those had been around for more than seventy-five years, and their derivations may be a mystery to some, especially those under forty. Here’s a primer on the source, or possible source, of some of the terms used in many newsrooms today.

Lede: The opening of an article is often spelled this way, though it’s pronounced to rhyme with “heed.” In the days before computers, type was set using hot lead. If a story came up short, thin pieces of lead were inserted between the lines to space it out. (Hence “leading,” pronounced LED-ing, for the space between two lines of type.) If a story sent to the typesetter had “lead” written on top to indicate that it was the opening paragraph, it could be confused with an order to space out the type. So editors started spelling that “lead” as “lede.”

Sted, graf, hed, dek: These and other shortened forms of words were used as typesetting or composition orders, so they couldn’t be mistaken for words to be set into type by themselves.

Slug: The short name for the story was usually set in a large, single “slug” of lead that more easily identified the type for the story waiting to be put into a page.

Slot: Back when every newspaper had a copy desk and computers were the stuff of science fiction, the copy desk was shaped like a horseshoe. (Why no one said it was shaped like the letter “U” is a mystery.) The copy desk chief, called the “slot man,” sat inside the horseshoe, where he could roll up and down, distributing and retrieving copy from the editors who sat on the outside. And thus the copy editors on the outside came to be referred to as the rim.

Stringer: This nickname for a correspondent came about, legend has it, because correspondents were paid by the length of their stories; editors would measure the stories with a string to determine how much to pay. There’s no support for the theory that “stringers” were so named because the newspapers that bought their copy would “string” them along, promising jobs but never delivering.

30: Many theories have been presented about the tradition of ending a story with the number 30, sometimes rendered as “-30-” or “##30##.” The most plausible is that it’s a telegrapher’s code. Some attribute it to Walter Phillips, who developed a telegraphic shorthand for frequently used words so press reports could be sent faster and cheaper than typing out full words.

Among the Phillips codes, Richard B. Harnett reported in his 1997 book, Wirespeak: Codes and Jargon of the News Business, were Scotus for “Supreme Court of the United States” and “Potus” for “President of the United States,” acronyms still used today. (Others, such as “Rpby” for “responsibility” and “Enud” for “enumerated,” are best left to the dustbin of history.)

The Phillips Code did not include any numbers, Harnett pointed out. But the code used by telegraph operators did. “30” meant “No more, the end.”

A 1915 textbook, Newspaper Editing by Grant Milnor Hyde, strongly supports the telegrapher theory. Its 1925 edition says to write “30” at the end of a story, preferably in a circle, and twice identifies “30” as “the telegrapher’s end mark.” That book also lists “#” or “###” as end marks.


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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. Tags: , , , ,