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Open Dictionary word of the week: reverse ferret

reverse ferret (noun)

a technical term used in journalism: a situation where a newspaper editor makes a dramatic change in the paper’s editorial line on something. Wikipedia provides a good explanation.
Last night, the Bishop of London “performed the most dramatic reverse ferret in modern church history”. (The Guardian, 1st November 2011)
(Submitted by Michael Rundell from United Kingdom)

Ferret legging is an endurance competition (now officially banned) that – according to Wikipedia – “seems to have been popular among coal miners in Yorkshire, England. The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English defines it as ‘an endurance test or stunt in which ferrets are trapped in pants worn by a participant’. The male-only contestants put live ferrets inside their trousers; the winner is the one who is the last to release the animals …”

Apparently when Kelvin MacKenzie was editor at The Sun he believed that when it came to public figures, a journalist’s role was to “stick a ferret up their trousers” – which, I suppose, is unendurably uncomfortable and irritating, but when public opinion turned against the paper’s line MacKenzie would order his journalists to ‘Reverse ferret!’ Certainly a more entertaining term than about-face.

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Laine Redpath Cole


  • I spent nearly two and a half decades as a reporter and editor; I never saw or heard the term “reverse ferret.” Is it restricted to the UK? or have I missed something?

  • Marc: yes, I think reverse ferret is a purely British expression, and a very good example opf a sublanguage term. There’s a good explanation of the term and its origins in Wikipedia. The key person is the legendary Fleet Street editor Kelvin MacKenzie, who probably isn’t well known outside the UK but who – as Editor of the best-selling ‘Sun’ newspaper in the days of Margaret Thatcher – was one of the most feared and influential people in the country.

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