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Nix not; neither shall you nab

Do you nix? Do you nab? Do you decry? Mull? (Well, maybe a little wine at Christmas.) Tout? (Only at the track.)

Newspapers are overly fond of dated slang and specialized language, which we in the business call journalese. When it is found in headlines, where short, snappy words are prized, it is called headlinese.

This dialect is familiar to generations of longtime newspaper readers, and familiarity has led to comfort with it. Unfortunately, as those generations of loyal readers are recorded lovingly in the obituary columns, the language looks increasingly dated and alien to living readers.

Journalese is a hard habit to break. One of our reporters once filed an article about a burglary that said that suspects had been fingered in the heist. Now, I like Raymond Chandler’s work as much as the next man, but I don’t think that the slang of the 1940s does much for readers in the current century.

For copy editors, the habit is even more deeply ingrained, because of the cruel and unforgiving limits of headline specs, particularly in one-column heads. Nix for prohibit or repudiate, decry for condemn or disparage, mull for consider, tout for promote or publicize, cite for illustrate or point out, slate for schedule, and eye for examine or consider are hard to resist.

(But before you badmouth my colleagues on the copy desk for lack of originality, let me invite you to show me how well you can summarize a 600-word article with six to eight words. Accurately. To fit in an assigned space. In three minutes.)

It is one thing for us to use this dated and increasingly obscure vocabulary in the printed edition, where at least we can expect some comfort with the conventions. But our headlines are also translated onto the electronic page, where they are not likely to draw the gaze of newer readers.

If newspapers are going to extend beyond their traditional audience, either in print or online, they are going to have to find ways to make the language more conversational, in a more contemporary idiom than the journalese of half a century ago. And that goes for headlines, too. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:31 AM | | Comments (4)


Some designers, and papers in general, are slower than others to realize that large point sizes, especially in one-column headlines, DON'T EVEN LOOK GOOD. And that the grace of the language is very much a part of design. Even if 42-point did look better than 30-point in that 11-pica column, I don't think SND judges will look kindly on your publication announcing to the readership that GUY RIPS PLAN.

Call me a retro-focused old codger, but James Cagney’s on-screen explanation of Variety’s hed, “Sticks Nix Hick Flix” just has to be one of the great journalistic moments (sorry, but I just couldn't resist).

Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin's book "Road Swing" included his all-time favorite old-school sports hed:

Bucs Buck Cubs' Slim Slab Corps

Do you think it's realistic at all to hope that papers will start putting different heads on physical and online versions? It makes sense to me. While it might be a little more work for us poor copy editors, at least we'd be able to use those great words that never squeeze into minute specs.
And online readers can get a little more info when they're just perusing headlines.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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