WHEN I was first learning to string sentences together, “journalese” was a condemnation, implying – usually – something that was perhaps both slang and imprecise. It is not a word you hear much now, possibly because such language is so pervasive, particularly on the internet with its many and various publishing platforms. 
Without any need for technology, however, sports reporting has always been in a class of its own in this sphere. Not being sufficiently tuned in to know the nicknames that have been randomly attached to players turning out for Glasgow’s main football teams, there are days when the advertising bills on the street for our sister paper the Evening Times might as well be in Swahili for all the sense I can make of them.
But jargon words that suffer from the same deficiencies abound on the news pages as well, of which “Brexit” is the most tediously obvious example round these parts. Like most readers, I suspect, I had not heard the term “incel” (an abbreviation, apparently, of “involuntary celibate”) until the shocking attack on Toronto by someone supposedly boasting of that affliction, although it seems to have been around for a while. The cowardly slaughter in Canada is not to be made light of, but that does not rule out ridicule as an appropriate response, and newspaper columnist Marina Hyde, a past master at that, effectively damned the term to lasting absurdity a week ago with an inspired parenthesis in a column about the self-incarcerated Julian Assange. Better that, I think, than the suggestion on social media that such deranged men be properly described as “angry virgins”, which would be hugely unfair on the attributes of both anger and virginity. Near the mark would be “failed sluts”, or “fluts” if you like, but even there the rights to fail or behave sluttily might reasonably be said to have been impugned.
In the world of the arts and entertainment, the showbiz trade weekly Variety, founded in New York in the early years of last century, blazed the trail – and sometimes a lonely one – for stage and screen journalese, but these days even its nautical-sounding terms like “helmers” and “toppers” crop up in more mainstream publications, and it can lay claim to inventing “showbiz”, “sitcom” and “payola”, all of which long since entered the wider vocabulary. Some of its abbreviations can still seem extremely opaque, however, and funny, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Even in the arts, though, there are times when the abuse of language goes beyond being a laughing matter, and indeed beyond the same realm as pedantic complaining about rogue apostrophes and endangered adverbs, of which I am as capable as anyone who has spent a large chunk of their working life copy-editing. In last Saturday’s Herald there was a story, drawn from a letter published that same day, which called on Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema not to screen films touring from London’s Israeli Film and Television Festival on the grounds that the movies, in part state-funded, showed a “prettier face” of the oppressor of the Palestinian people and were therefore a form of cultural propaganda.
The poisonous phrase came not in the letter itself, but from a spokesman for the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, who described the purpose of the festival as “art-washing”. If ever there is a portmanteau use that not only demeans both art and washing, but is instantly redolent of the sloganising of fascist and totalitarian regimes – and of course the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984 – that is it. For now, I’m afraid that an inspired riff of ridicule eludes me, but I sincerely hope never to hear that expression come from the mouth of anyone, of any political persuasion or activism, who self-identifies as an artist.