What's in a word? More than it may seem. Journalists are constantly reminded that their audience cares greatly about how stories are told.
For example, there was a flurry on social media after intelligence officials referred to Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the "mastermind" of the Paris attacks. People objected to the word and wanted The Globe to ban it from descriptions of terror suspects. (The one in question died a few days later in a police raid.)
Some of the comments:
"He's not a mastermind. He was a tiny-minded, cold-blooded predator with a dead heart and an evil soul."
"It doesn't take a genius to do much of this stuff. It just glorifies the bad guys."
"He's not a mastermind. He is a sick killer. Mastermind is a word used to describe someone who is an intellectual genius, not a terrorist."
Of course, the backlash went beyond Globe readers, and included members of the media as well. While the attack was complex, said Jack Shafer, senior media writer with Politico, the Washington-based newspaper and website, "no true mastermind would brag about the results … Why can't he be called something more mundane, like an organizer or a commander?"
U.S. television analyst Lawrence O'Donnell agreed, saying that to call terrorists masterminds is "exactly what they want. … Stop glorifying this homicidal manic."
Dictionaries include several potential meanings for the word, but the most common involve something along the lines of "a person who originates or is primarily responsible for the execution of a particular idea, project or the like." This person can be highly intelligent – "genius" is a synonym, yet so are commander and architect.
In this case, the context is more important: Mr. Abaaoud was seen by police as a criminal mastermind who had planned the attacks. That's neither a compliment nor an insult – he was simply seen as the ringleader.
So, rather than being banned, words should be used properly, especially given the fact that, over time, usage can change and alter their meaning. They can become clichés or culturally insensitive, if not used correctly.
According to one reader, Globe coverage of the federal election featured two terms that she considered dated and insensitive. "In this day and age," she says, "the G&M has no business publishing descriptions such as a bloodbath and scalps."
Bloodbath has appeared exactly 50 times in the past year, rarely in relation to any blood-letting. (One instance was the headline on a story about Calgary office space.) The complaint came in response to using the word to describe the stunning loss of seats by the Conservatives and New Democrats. (The story also said the bloodbath included some "top Tory scalps," which I agree was inappropriate).
Then there were the campaign's clichés. "Knockout punch" is a favourite.
"The three debates so far have not seen any obvious knockout punches," one writer said. I would hope not.
Another reader wondered "why The Globe and Mail frequently uses the term 'tough on crime' when referring to the [former] Harper government's approach to criminal-justice matters. This is a term used by the government's PR/spin doctors. Why does The Globe and Mail report it verbatim rather than, say, pro-revenge, pro-incarceration or pro-punishment approach?"
Of course, clichés plague much more than political writing. We are constantly being told that "blank is the new blank" (pink is black, 60 is 40, and so on). And I agree with Globe Life writer Dave McGinn, who recently asked everyone to stop using "porn" to describe objects of desire. "At least 'food porn' was vaguely carnal. But look what it unleashed: car porn, architecture porn, Earth porn (seriously), to name just a few," he wrote.
Great writing can be original, funny and evocative. It doesn't need to fall back on overused words and phrases that betray a lack of creative thought.
It's best to think – and try – a little harder. Here are a few examples of great, original writing by Globe staff.
Cathal Kelly on mixed-martial-arts superstar Ronda Rousey: "She was accompanied … by a bodyguard the width of a king-size bed stood on end."
Ian Brown on the [then-future] prime minister: "He has the physical grace of a professional athlete. … Next to Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper look like nesting babushka dolls."
And Elizabeth Renzetti [currently on sabbatical] on what concerns parents most when kids go back go school: "Is it a full academic year of text messages from their young people that appear to have been composed in Sanskrit: im gud cu l8r."
Clearly, stories can be clever, amusing and free of cliché – but too often they're not. If you come across something so overworked that it, well, drives you up the wall, feel free to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org