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All the clichés fit to print

Posted by Delia Cabe  June 23, 2010 12:36 PM

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4451409788_73c8b16b6c.jpgBP CEO Tony Hayward is embattled. If you haven’t heard his name and that adjective together, you have managed somehow to avoid more than 200 newspapers and numerous radio and TV reports. By now, Hayward’s parents might wonder whether their son has legally changed his first name to “Embattled.” (photo by rharrison)

Hayward is not alone. (More on that later.) This month, New York Mets manager, Jerry Manuel, was described as “embattled.” Recently, so were GOP chairman Michael Steele, former Ill. governor Rod Blagojevich and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Search news databases in the past year, and the list of embattled folks grows: New York Times Co. publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, actors Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen and many, many more.

As I typed that previous sentence, a local TV news anchor called the just-traded Boston Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman “embattled.” Even Shakespearean characters get stuck with the label. A Los Angeles Times reporter compared newly resigned British prime minister Gordon Brown to Macbeth, “the embattled Scottish king holed up in his castle.”

As soon as anyone has some crisis, my fellow journalists resort to the word “embattled.” Surely that’s not the only adjective in our arsenal. I dare you: surprise your readers and listeners. They deserve fresher language—and a livelier read. But be careful. Resist the temptation to use “crazed” or "stressed out." Too colloquial.

If you’re desperate, reach for Roget’s. My yellowed copy lists “beleaguered” and "besieged" first. Really desperate? Click on the thesaurus in MS Word. Seriously at a loss for another word? Ask your editor—or go for the “phone-a-friend” lifeline. Missing your deadline? Leave it blank.

However, “embattled” is not the only writing crutch journalists rely on too much. They have pet words, phrases and devices that make their writing predictable, stale. Being a journalist, I spot these clichés and my eyes skip over them. Let’s retire these as well:

“…is not alone.” I purposely used this device in my second paragraph. Readers, you’ve seen this so many times. The setup: an anecdote to show one example and then a transition to the larger issue or problem. In the last few months, New York Times reporters have stated that Pine Manor College, a couple with immigration issues, a golfer at the US Open, a Ponzi scheme victim, Louisville and, yes, a migratory bird called a bar-tailed godwit are not alone. The statement is followed by a few other examples or stats to show how un-alone this person, place, animal or other thing is.

Outcry, usually “public outcry.” So much in this world has triggered public outcries. In my database search, the following prompted outcries: Facebook, the homeless, street musicians, sculpture, wildlife conservation, Gaza and the oil spill. I had to avert my eyes after awhile.

Reportedly. I’m not even sure what this word adds to a sentence. I’ve seen and heard it in sentences to imply a rumor, an allegation and a news report. Should the reader think that the statement is a fact reported by unnamed news organization or you’re repeating a dubious source? To wit:

from an Associated Press story, June 15, about the embattled Charlie Sheen:

A Bentley was later found off the same road nearby, and police said three other cars reportedly were broken into in the same area.

On CNN, about the death of NBA basketball player Manute Bol:

. . .he reportedly contracted from kidney medication he received in Africa.

Mounting. The newspaper database I consulted for my search nearly choked as it coughed up all instances of this adjective: mounting complaints, evidence, security fears, threats, costs, legal problems, pressure, criticism, disappointment, debts, tension. I stopped reading the mounting search results.

Bespectacled. I bet that most of us rarely utter this word in conversation. But when it comes to print, bespectacled seems like some kind of shorthand for geeky, wise, aging or other attribute. The word appeared in most obituaries and remembrances about former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Bearded and bespectacled often were paired, as if eyeglasses came with a beard attached. Ditto for bald and bespectacled, in this case, the glasses come with a bald cap. A week ago, I saw neither at the spectacle, I mean, optical store. Perhaps some men do their eyeglass shopping at a joke shop.

My vote for most unusual description appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

bespectacled advertising boss who hosted a cow-studded launch party

Don’t ask.

Tragedy/tragic. The guilty party is most often TV reporters, who break in, their voices somber, to announce the tragic fall of a leaf from a tree. Last week, CNN used either of these words 80 times—and not just about the oil spill.

Leafy suburb. Guess what? Go to any suburb and you’ll find trees with leaves, unless a) it’s the dead of winter or b) the suburb is located in a cactus-filled desert. If you happen upon a place filled with evergreen trees in the winter, you can write “needley suburb.” In the latter situation, try “prickly suburb.” In second place, “tony suburb.” Are wealthy, opulent or affluent, for some reason, too direct? Better yet, provide details that show what the suburb is. We’ll get it.

Wunderkind. Did you hear about Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg? A wunderkind. Also, some bloggers, a convicted real estate mogul, conductors, musicians, writers, ad infinitum. You’d be surprised how many wunderkinds there are out there. I chuckled when I read this New York Post description of the director of the play, “Enron”: “British wunderkind with the jaunty hairdo, Rupert Gould.” I’m still wondering what a jaunty hairdo looks like.

Senseless murder. Most are, aren’t they?

Others? Brouhaha, firestorm, ouster. . .

Now for the kudos: Congrats to Stevenson Jacobs, Associated Press business writer, who worked in “embattled CEO,” “mounting scrutiny” and "outcry" in his story about the Bank of America CEO in an October 2009 story.


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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at http://twitter.com/#!/DeliaCabe, More »

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