I have this friend who’s always getting on my case because I never use his favorite words in news stories. The problem is, my friend drinks a lot, and he tends to enjoy words that sort of drip like syrup from the lips.
“If you were any kind of writer,” the drunken vocabularist will slur at me, his breath smelling a lot like the city of Milwaukee. “You would use the word lugubrious’ now and then. What kind of hack doesn’t use the word lugubrious?'”
As words go, lugubrious is a beauty. It is used to describe those things that are excessively gloomy or glum. Those of you who know me know that I completely enjoy things that are gloomy or glum. In fact, I’ve used my friend’s coveted word a time or two in fiction. Generally though, it’s easier to say gloomy or glum, somber or bleak.
Strangely, my editors are with me on this one. (My, what a strange sentence that was to write.) Newspaper editors generally frown on any word that isn’t among those commonly used by the average reader. Try indulging in any form of sesquipedalianism and those word-slayers will have their fingers on the delete button faster than you can say hypercatalectic.
To be fair, I tested out this proposed word on the street. I waited until there was nastiness downtown and then wandered up to a witness.
“Excuse me, sir? You saw what happened. Was the scene lugubrious at all?”
“Don’t make me cut you, man.”
So, you’ll likely never see the term “lugubrious” in one of my news stories no matter how aptly it describes the mood. I tried explaining this to my staggering wordsmith friend, and he’s been disconsolate since.
There are lots of things I am unable to sneak into a news story. A few years ago, I wrote several pieces about a priest who was convicted of murdering a man and woman from his congregation. In what I thought was a morbid twist, it was revealed that the holy man had performed the wedding ceremony for the pair years before he slew them.
I wrote that particular detail thusly: “In a ghastly irony, friends say the church leader married the couple just months before beating them to death.”
It was trouble from the start. An editor hailed me over moments after opening the story to give it a read-through. (Editors typically hail reporters over by emitting a pungent scent and a high, screeching sound that can only be heard by journalists.)
“Does this really qualify as a ghastly irony?” the editor wanted to know. “I mean, define ghastly.”
Normally I don’t argue with editors, lest I get eaten. In this case, I was very fond of the term “ghastly irony” and I wanted it used. So I got my hands on a dictionary and looked it up. The definition was something like: “inspiring shock or revulsion: see editor.'”
It was my firm belief that a priest murdering a pair of worshippers he had married just months before qualified as a ghastly irony. The editors somewhat disagreed.
“I mean, define irony …”
And so the description was hacked from the story. Future attempts to incorporate “ghastly irony” likewise failed. Now I think they have a blocker built into the computer software to catch any attempts to use those words in that order. And the phrase was yanked with particular swiftness when I tried to describe a fuel leak as a “gas-leak irony.”
Reporters occasionally become tired of the formulaic style of writing news. Occasionally, they try to flower up their writing by using words that are 9 inches long or by injecting superfluous detail into a story.
“On an evening that was crisp and clear, despite the low-hanging haze from the mills next to the canal, which flowed dreamily across the city, as they have since the mid-1800’s, when Lewiston was a thriving, industrial city, two cars collided just after sundown.”
Surely you see the problem with this. Although the reader may enjoy the visual tone set by the writer, he will have fallen asleep by the time the actual news is introduced.
A wise editor once told me to employ what he referred to, in the grip of his dawning madness, as the Bus Stop Lead. This involves imagining yourself standing on the street while a bus is pulling away. A friend on the bus leans out the window and asks you what happened at the fire, crash, shooting, naked mud fight, etc. And you have to choose words that will relate the story before the bus pulls away.
It’s a great literary tool for journalists. Unfortunately, every time I try to use it, I end up shouting: “You’re on the wrong bus, moron!” instead of writing my story.
So, my lugubrious friend will keep bugging me about his pet word, and I’ll keep explaining why editors will never allow me to use it. The whole situation is just entirely labyrinthine.
Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter. Visit his blog at www.sunjournal.com.