Thursday, October 6, 2016

Newspaper English

Many of our readers must have observed the greatly increased taste for fine language which has become apparent of late years amongst uneducated or half-educated people. Of the many symptoms by which a gentleman may be recognised, none is more certain than his habitual plainness of speech. There is a large class of words which shopkeepers and bagmen use without any particular affectation, but simply because they think it a proof of education and good manners—just as they say “Sir” or “Mr.” oftener than people of higher rank. A friend of ours once heard the following conversation in the commercial room of a country inn:—“Sir, have you visited the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations?”—“I have taken an opportunity of doing so, sir, and was deeply gratified by what I remarked.”—“May I ask, sir, what it was that principally attracted your attention?”—“The specimens of Manchester cottons and the statue of Godfrey of Bullion.”—“Who, sir, was Godfrey of Bullion?”—“Godfrey of Bullion, sir, was the party who placed himself at the head of those parties who proceeded from France with a view to liberate the Holy Land from the other parties who held it—the —the –. It is a singular fact, that I am at present unable to recal the appellation which those parties selected.” After some more conversation, in the course of which one of these Euphuists asked the other whether Jacob Faithful was “a book of fiction or a narrative of fact,” they parted, as they expressed it, “to retire to the embraces of Morpheus.”

The harm done by this kind of folly is greater than might be supposed at first sight. It induces vagueness and inaccuracy of thought. The jury which recommended Dove to mercy would never have stultified themselves as they did if they had not been able to shelter their folly under the unmeaning phrase, “defective intellect”—just as Westron's jury talked nonsense about his “hereditary predisposition to insanity.” A considerable curtailment of the nonsense which infests the world would be effected by the disuse of the “great swelling words” which enable so many people to talk about what they do not understand. The origin of this kind of language is easily detected. Our intelligent middle classes are not famous for extensive reading, and it is easy to observe in their dialect, whenever it becomes at all pronounced, traces of the fact that they form their style on the newspapers, and more especially on their penny-a-lining department. We have frequently had occasion to speak of the style and character of “Our Own Correspondent,” but that great man's influence can never be fully understood until his peculiar position, as head of an extensive and influential profession, is properly recognised. We all know what the attorney-general or archbishop of correspondents can do, but we do not think that the influence of the junior members of the body which he represents is fully understood. The Israelites, when called upon to furnish a maximum of bricks, and supplied with only a minimum of straw, are a type of the “gentleman connected with the press” who has to fill his two or three newspaper columns with an account of the sayings and doings at some political meeting or other public ceremony. A man with a slight education, a fluent pen, and a certain amount of natural shrewdness, is sent off, on no notice at all, to make an amusing story out of an affair of the special purpose of which he has no more conception than he has of Hebrew. He describes a review at Spithead on Monday, a review at Aldershott on Tuesday, a fête at the Crystal Palace on Wednesday, an agricultural meeting on Thursday, an Administrative Reform Association dinner on Friday, and an execution on Saturday, in the profoundest ignorance of military or naval warfare, hydraulics, agriculture, politics, and mechanics; and yet he leaves on the minds of his readers a wonderful impression of his extraordinary vivacity and deep information. As an irreverent critic once said of a brilliant reviewer, his articles are worth reading twice “to see the dodge of them.” They are all got up on the same principle, and sustained by the same artifices. On some future occasion we may perhaps direct our readers' attention to some of the more remarkable species of this genus of writers; but at present we confine ourselves to the manner in which, from the necessities of the case, they are obliged to corrupt the English language.

One of the indispensable requisities of this style of writing is a lax phraseology-- something which commits the person who uses it to as few facts, and therefore lays him open to as few contradictions, as possible. It is a great art to be able to make a number of statements without committing oneself to a single fact; and the best way of doing this is to employ words which have no precise meaning, rather than those which have. We have already shown how useful this art is to juries in wording recommendations to mercy. We have little doubt that those who sit upon them learn it from penny-a-liners. A gentleman of the class in question not long since delighted the readers of the Times by an account of the meeting (of course he called it “gathering,” in inverted commas) at Mr. Mechi's farm at Tiptree, in Essex. His bulletin is full of such phrases as these --“practical agriculturists,” “liberal application of capital,” “national and adequate, recognition;” and, amongst other things, it contains the following curious remark:—“A soil of this description precludes the operation of atmospheric changes, essential to a healthy and abundant vegetation.” To use such phrases as “men actually employed in farming,” or “spending a great deal of money," would look tame by the side of the first two phrases which we have copied; whilst the third and fourth are not less remarkable for their want of definite meaning than for their extreme grandeur. We may take the following as another example of the same thing. Mr. Mechi, we are told, exhibited a machine for bringing rockets to “the part of a beach most advantageous for effecting a communication” with wrecks. If the writer had said, “from which the wreck might be reached most easily," he would have missed an opportunity of using words of Latin, origin where plain English would have done equally well, and of employing fifteen syllables where seven would have been enough. It is a commonplace thing to speak of a “dangerous habit;” but who can refuse to shudder at hearing that “a practice obtains replete with danger to the public?" To mention the date of the building of the Hôtel de Ville at Brussels would require some knowledge, and might look pedantic; but it gives a delightful tone of taste to an article about the Belgian fêtes to allude to “that renowned monument of mediaeval architecture." A “bloody battle" is coarse—an “ensanguined battle” interesting. Anybody could have said that there were no beds to be had at Southampton the night before the naval review; but no one but a writer in the Times could have told us that on that night many persons were unable to take “horizontal refreshment.”

We must not, however, suppose that the penny-a-lining principle affects only the words used. It has quite as strong an influence on the style. A certain jaunty affectation of ease, the constant introduction, apropos de bottes, of quotations or odd stories, a few withering sarcasms at the standing objects of the attacks of the newspaper in which the article appears, a ludicrous exaggeration of minute details, and a sort of affectation of omniscience are amongst its most characteristic features. On the 31st of last month, an article appeared in the Times, on a Review at Aldershott, which curiously exemplifies these peculiarities. The writer begins by saying that it was fine weather, and very hot, and he does it in the following elegant style:--"Nothing could exceed the beauty of the weather. The heat, no doubt, was occasionally oppressive, but the sky was as blue as an amethyst" (? red cornelian), “and not one wandering cloud interposed, between the sun, and his nobility.” What is the sun's nobility, and how could you get between it and him? “In fact, it was one of those glorious days when, to use the expressive phrase of an Oriental writer” (we should like to know who he is), “‘the green blood dances in the veins of the rose-trees, and you can almost fancy that you see the corn-fields growing.” Nine lines and a half at 1 1/2d. are—the established newspaper phrase once dearly beloved by Punch would be, “according to Cocker”—1s. 1 1/2d. or just the price of a box of quack pills, including the stamp; and we think the information is dear at the price. After this ingenious and rather expensive exordium, comes the business of the day. We are introduced to certain stables, which, “at first sight, remind the spectator of the ingenious little domicile improvised by Robinson Crusoe," and which supply the writer with an opportunity for displaying much virtuous indignation about Lord Lucan and Sir Richard Airey. After a time, we come upon a criticism of the arrangements for spectators, which gives our friend an opportunity of mentioning the exclusion of “the great body of the public—they of whom it has been proudly said that they are the true source of all legitimate power,” and of remonstrating in a characteristic style about the rough manners of some “fierce trooper who, flourishing his polished sabre in the air, threatens to cut them [“we” and others] off in the flower of their days unless they at once betake themselves to some remote region, from which the soldiers, like, Shakspeare's famous samphire gatherer, look ‘no bigger than their heads.’” There is an amusing naiveté in the next sentence—“And the worst of it is, that you have no chance against such an antagonist.”

Of course we do not expect high literary excellence in reports which are necessarily written in haste; but we have a right to criticize elaborate and systematic offences against good taste and common sense. We seriously believe that the flashy, jaunty style of newspaper accounts of ordinary occurrences as a good deal to do with the prevalence of similar faults in writings of much higher pretension. It is a great merit to be able to tell a plain story in a plain manner, and no one knows so well as those who see much of the current literature of the day how rare a merit it is. The style of newspaper reporters is imitated by hundreds of persons who have not the same excuse for adopting it. A newspaper must be read. It must also be read on the day of publication, and in order to attain that object, eat part of it is always written in a vulgar, garish style. Such artifices as these are mere bids for popularity; and although, in so far as they merely affect more or less the circulation of the paper in which they appear, they may be sufficiently unimportant, they become a serious evil when they infect our literature and enfeeble our every-day language.

Saturday Review, August 9, 1856.

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