For better or worse, largely for the better, I spent several of my school years studying the epic poems of Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The stories are immortal and their great themes resonate today.
One of the things you learn early is that Homer is very fond of ‘epithets’ – descriptions that attach to a character, a place or a phenomenon and recur when that thing is mentioned – typical ones are ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ (dawn is always rosy-fingered) or ‘the wine-dark sea’.
Rather less talented, and certainly much less durable, are the tabloid newspapers. But they love their epithets too. They use them as codes, attaching them without fail to certain words in order to slant their stories to help you see the world the same way as they do. Here are a few:
Word: (of a prison) Notorious
Describes: Any prison outside the UK
Alan says: Most prisons in the UK are pretty notorious too. I guess they’re supposed to be. And – get used to it – one or two other countries can sometimes treat prisoners even better than our wonderfully civilised arrangements.
Word: Close knit
Describes: Any community where a tragedy happens
Alan says: In some places, everyone knows everyone else. In others, they despise each other. In others (the majority in the UK, I suspect) ‘people keep themselves to themselves’. And that’s about it.
Alan says: If they’re openly gay, say ‘gay’. If not, it’s not your business to drop hints so just leave out the epithet.
Describes: 1. Any British serviceman who dies. 2. Any American who dies outside the US of A.
Alan says: Please don’t devalue my language. Save words like this for when they really count. Hero means hero. Ask Homer.
Word: (of a footballer) Unsettled
Describes: Greedy. And probably has an even greedier agent.
Alan says: Why do you let football agents manipulate you and your stories for their own ends? At least keep up the pretence that your newspaper is independent.
Alan says: See above.
Word: (of a group of MPs) Influential
Describes: A Parliamentary Select Committee.
Alan says: It’s a Select Committee, for goodness’ sake. They were set up to give backbench MPs the impression they have something to do apart from marching mindlessly through the voting lobbies. They conduct enquiries and publish non-binding reports which go in someone’s drawer and are rarely seen again. Sometimes a grandee might say they are “a valuable contribution to debate” – code for ‘filed in the WPB’. As for influencing anything …
Word: (suffix) …gate
Describes: The latest scandal that some hack needs to find a name for.
Alan says: It worked for the original Watergate scandal because ‘…gate’ is part of the original word. Obviously. Equally obviously, sticking it on the end of another word (expenses… blood… pleb… ) is just cheap and silly. The best proof of this is that you struggle to remember the new versions a few weeks afterwards, but no one ever forgets ‘Watergate’. Moral: Try a bit of originality. Don’t leap at the cheap and lazy version.
Word: Top (eg cop, doctor, judge)
Describes: 1. Someone who has said something which might embarrass the Government. 2. Someone whom the newspaper wants to pull off a pedestal.
Alan says: By definition, only a few people are genuinely ‘top’. They don’t become that way just because you need a headline.
That’s nine, isn’t it? Did I say ten? Pity, but you just can’t get the clichés these days. I blame the Government.