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Heads roll over arms

Published:Saturday | June 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Contributor

Jack Warner of FIFA fame was recently made minister of national security in Trinidad and Tobago, and, according to a television report, immediately summoned all the heads of the various arms of national security to a meeting.

Recognising the 'mistake', I started laughing, but found that when I shared the story with other people they took a while to see the humour in it. What this shows is the extent to which we have become inured to journalese or "the artificial or hyperbolic (exaggerated), and sometimes overabbre-viated, language regarded as characteristic of the popular media".

I decided to take the lesson in anatomy further and imagined the news commentary to follow. "Make no bones about it, you've got to hand it to Jack for jumping into the job with both feet. It shows that he has the belly for the job since his sole purpose clearly is to put his back into it, keep his ear to the ground, his shoulders to the wheel and his nose to the grindstone.

"But he has to be on his toes since crime is increasing and his neck will be on the chopping block if he fails. He can't be weak-kneed and must have the backbone for the job since his butt is on the line."

There are people who cannot stomach Mr Warner and may even use significantly different anatomical references to describe him, but his ministry is clearly one of the main organs of the State.

Not everyone will use the same body parts that I did to describe Jack's suitability for his new post, but a newspaper headline also had the same example of journalese: 'Iraqi head seeks arms' and another, 'Heads roll over smuggled arms deal'. Then there was 'Prostitutes appeal to Pope'. One commentator said that if little boys appeal to priests, why shouldn't prostitutes appeal to the Pope?

'Survivor of Siamese twins join parents', 'Drunk gets nine months in violin case', 'Panda mating fails: veterinarian takes over', 'Squad helps dog bite victim', 'Juvenile court to try shooting defendant', 'Is there a ring around Uranus?' and 'Lung cancer in women mushrooms' are other examples of the pressures of limited space and tight deadlines on journalists.

Headline writers may be excused since the headline goes in after the story and has to conform to whatever space is available, but how do you explain stories like these? The Miami Herald ran the following: "Davie police are searching for a man with a .25-calibre semi-automatic handgun to rob a convenience store Wednesday."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch included a story about a dump-truck driver who "dropped more than 59,000 pounds of processed human excrement on Interstate 295" and was charged with "failure to contain his load". This one defied logic. The Port Aransas (Texas) South Jetty ran an article: "No goat was found in the trunk of a vehicle when an officer responded to a complaint on East Avenue G at about 1:20 p.m."

Mixed metaphor madness

'Wordwatch', a web-based "plain-language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well", clarified the relationship between journalese and mixed metaphors: "You can always tell when journalists are getting overexcited (and the subeditor has gone for a tea break). Their metaphors become a little, er, stretched. (To put it kindly)."

Writing about the less-than-spectacular box office performance of Jennifer Aniston's latest film, Guy Adam opines in the Independent: "Six years after the show's 238th and last episode, the culture footprint of Friends remains so vast that every one of its stars remains firmly in its shadow." Now, I'd quite like to witness the shadow of a footprint, but I'm guessing that the laws of physics (or some other more relevant science) mean that's not going to happen any time soon.

One of the finest examples of a mixed metaphor is by an Irish parliamentarian, Boyle Roche: "Mr Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud."

The Chicago Tribune (cited by The New Yorker, August 13, 2007) mixed up three different phenomena: "So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt."

The Montgomery Advertiser came up with one that misfired: "The mayor has a heart as big as the Sahara for protecting 'his' police officers, and that is commendable. Unfortunately, he also often strips his gear by failing to engage the clutch when shifting what emanates from his brain to his mouth. The bullets he fires too often land in his own feet."

It is not often that mixed metaphors and fractured English go together, but in paying tribute to English maven, Richard Lederer, People magazine contributor Richard Sonzski wrote: "Author Richard Lederer doesn't expect to win any Pullet Surprises for his book. At least not unless there are some exterminating circumstances. After all, Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language is really a horse of a different feather - an anthology of unintentional puns, linguistic bloopers, goofs and even Goldwynisms (courtesy of the late film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who once said, 'This makes me so sore it gets my dandruff up').

"The linguistic lummoxes cited by Lederer run the gauntlet (er, gamut) from newspaper headline editors ('Man held over giant LA brush fire') to advertising copywriters, students, signmakers, lawyers, politicians and even church rectors ('This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs White to come forward and lay an egg on the altar')."

The moral of this article is that it's as plain as the egg on your face, once you open a can of worms, they always come home to roost or at the very least go up a tree without a paddle.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that reducing crime in Trinidad is like trying to thread a needle with a haystack.