Extra! Extra! Journalism Jargon Explained

Slug

In journalism, a slug is not a garden pest. Instead it's a short phrase summarizing the subject of an article, used to identify the story as it moves through the editorial process.

This definition can be traced to the printing process; in typesetting terminology, slug refers to a metal bar used as a line divider or as a full line of type as with a Linotype machine. The use of slug to refer to a piece of metal goes back to the mid-1600s, when it was used to refer to a crude bullet, likely named for its resemblance to—you guessed it—the humble shell-less land snail.


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Deadline

A slew of looming deadlines can have the best of scribes shaking in his or her boots, but the current sense of this word, "a time by which something must be finished," is comforting compared to how it was formerly used.

Deadline was once used to refer to a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards. The meaning of deadline as we now know it emerged 60 years later in American newsrooms and is thought to have been influenced by the aforementioned Civil War-era sense.

Yellow journalism

Yellow journalism is a type of reporting characterized by sensationalism, but what does it have to do with the color itself?

The story goes back to the era of fierce competition between newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, marked by an "any means necessary" approach to boosting circulation. In 1896 Hearst lured Pulitzer's cartoonist, Richard Outcault, to his paper to draw his already popular comic strip. The strip featured a boy in an oversized yellow shirt known as The Yellow Kid, and was one of the first to be printed in color.

Boilerplate

In the newsroom, boilerplate refers to syndicated or ready-to-print copy that can be used repeatedly without alteration. Prior to this sense of the word, boilerplate primarily referred to a large sheet of steel or iron used in making steam boilers.

The connection between the two--drawing on the theme of reusability--can be traced back to the 1890s when news agencies, such as the Western Newspaper Union, began sending publicity and advertising materials on printer-ready metal plates to smaller newspapers to be distributed in the papers as fillers.

Tabloid

Though most of us use of the word tabloid to refer to those over-the-top paparazzi-driven weekly publications peddling celebrity gossip in the checkout aisle, the word was trademarked in 1884 with a capital T as a name for a type of tablet, a compressed piece of a medicinal or chemical substance.

The leap from this scientific meaning to the current one wasn't far: the pages of tabloid newspapers are about half the size of a standard newspaper page with short, condensed articles, drawing on the motif of compactness.

Squib

In Harry Potter, a squib is witch or wizard who doesn't have any magical powers. But in journalism, a squib is a short news story, often used as a filler.

Out of the newsroom, squib refers to both a witty, satirical saying and a small firework that burns with a hissing noise. Which of these non-journalism senses came first is unclear, but if the firework definition was the original, the word might be an instance of everyone's favorite poetic device: onomatopoeia.

Widow

This term is widely used in printing to refer to a specific formatting problem: a word or line of text that is carried over to the top of the following page or column, left dangling and separate from the rest of the paragraph.

Similarly, orphan is used to refer to the first line of a paragraph when it appears alone at the bottom of a page.

Bulldog edition

An Americanism meaning "the earliest daily edition of a newspaper," bulldog edition is commonly associated with William Randolph Hearst and the newspaper wars of the 1890s, which had publishers competing aggressively to increase circulation.

In 1905, Hearst allegedly told his editors to write headlines that would "bite the public like a bulldog."

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