Love English

Henry’s social media musings

HenryFirthHi! I’m Henry and I look after Macmillan Dictionary’s social media channels. (Yes, that’s me ‘liking’ and replying to those comments…)

Seeing as I spend so much time online, I thought it would be a good idea to start a monthly blog on the latest buzzwords – and other linguistic trends – that I spot whilst perusing the world of Twitter and Facebook.



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Unless you’ve been hiding under a very large rock these past few weeks, you’ll have no doubt by now seen or read something regarding the dramatic fall from grace of Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson.

To briefly recap for those not aware of the story: a hangry (hungry + angry – geddit?) Clarkson is said to have assaulted one of the show’s producers for the heinous crime of failing to ensure a hot meal – namely steak – was waiting for him upon his arrival at the Yorkshire hotel where filming for an upcoming episode was to be based.

Cue the inevitable tabloid field day and the emergence of a petition signed by over a million people to reinstate Clarkson to his post as the face of one of Britain’s most successful recent cultural exports’. Only now, some weeks later, is the brouhaha beginning to die down after it was finally confirmed that the controversial presenter would not be having his contract with the BBC renewed.

As Clarkson is one of the most recognizable celebrities in the country, the story was already big enough news in itself. But, interestingly, what also got people talking was the way news of the incident broke and, more specifically, the language chosen to describe it.

You see, in a classic example of what I like to call ‘press release speak’ (aka journalese), the initial statement that emerged from the BBC elected to attribute Clarkson’s suspension to a fracas with a producer.

Now that we know exactly what happened, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps words like altercation, row, fight or scuffle are not only clearer for the average reader to understand, but also perhaps closer to the truth.

Maybe I’m doing the authors a disservice, but it seems they hoped the choice of fracas over some of its more widely-used synonyms would avoid sensationalizing what they knew was already going to be a very newsworthy topic.

If that was the case, then I think it backfired. You see, fracas is mildly exotic as it is, not the kind of word I or many others generally find themselves using on a day-to-day basis. So, the very use of this word only served to increase people’s intrigue, adding a new level of curiosity as to just what had happened in that hotel.

Inevitably, the Twittersphere reacted with its usual satire to the sudden reappearance of this slightly neglected word, and fracas quickly became the talk of the internet (as we see below) lending an almost comical element to the unfolding drama at the BBC.

Eddy’s tweet above was actually borne out by the stats (…sort of)!

Google searches for ‘fracas meaning’ in March

As the saga drew on, this helpful chart, put together by the Daily Mirror, offered a handy guide to those looking to assess the seriousness of what may have occurred between Clarkson and his colleague for those bewildered by the BBC’s reporting of events.

So what’s this all got to do with language?

Well, if, like me, you imagine the sound of a newsreader’s voice in your head as you read the papers (it’s not just me who does that, right?), you’ll think nothing of hearing certain words internally.

I’m thinking here of those common tabloid-fillers that accompany any sleaze scandal or the latest celebrity love affair: words like romp, love nest, babe, beauty or stunner that anyone with a passing familiarity with the British press will be more than aware of.

Yet, in all honesty, who amongst us would ever think to use such words in speech? I’d hazard to guess very few, but they tend to serve an important purpose in creating the punchy, staccato rhythm necessary when space is at a premium and maximum impact required. For anyone interested, this phenomenon is explored in greater detail by an excellent article in the Guardian here.

Allow me to pick out one quote to illustrate the point:

In tabloid-speak, girls are stunners, doctors are medics, police are cops, children are tots and, sometimes, kiddies. Sports stars are aces. Then there are those familiar headline verbs that form no part of normal verbal communication: politicians are rapped or slammed, problems are probed, people are axed. Some regular phrases have no context outside the pages of a paper, such as terror purges, rings of steel, shock verdicts, death plunges and murder bids.

Within this context, where newspapers and the wider media have evolved their own language, it’s easy to see why words like fracas should appear in cases such as steak-gate, the name now being given to the incident involving Clarkson.

And, yes, you guessed it. There’s that familiar –gate suffix being affixed to a noun in another common journalistic device used to describe any kind of scandal ever since the Watergate affair sealed the fate of President Nixon.

From a linguistic perspective, it’s interesting to observe how social media is beginning to challenge some of the conventions we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. So, in an age where everybody can reasonably claim to be some kind of journalist  be that through their blog or Twitter following  they too can play a part in shaping the way we report such events.

Certainly, I think some of the mockery that accompanied the official reporting of events in this case is evidence of this, and a growing clamour for greater clarity when it comes to language in our jargon-filled world.

I expect more of the same to emerge in the coming weeks and months as we witness the first UK and US election battles to be truly fought over digital platforms, where no doubt the words of the leaders on the campaign trail will be pored over in even more excruciatingly minute detail than before.

And in fact, that’s exactly what I plan to examine in my next post.

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About the author

Henry Firth

1 Comment

  • Hangry is one of the most useful recent additions to my vocabulary, and has also been taken up by other members of my family.
    Another interesting linguistic aspect of the Clarkson brouhaha is how different news organisations reported the swearword he used, depending on how censorial or frank the conventions in each venue. I listed some of the variations here; anyone offended by strong language is advised not to click.

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