Tots Meet Boffins for Romps as Author Unravels Headlines

The world of newspaper journalism has a language all its own.

That’s especially true in Britain, where “troubled stars lash out in foul-mouthed tirades” and “late-night revelers” are forever on “booze-fueled rampages.”

Bloomberg News’s U.K. political correspondent Robert Hutton speaks about his new lexicon, “Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News.”

Beech: You say that David Cameron is to blame for the work?

Hutton: Yes. If the prime minister’s office had been able to find a big enough plane for the traveling press when he visited Jordan last year, I’d never have been sitting on my suitcase in an airport lounge at 4 a.m. waiting for a flight home. Because I was, I sent a single tweet musing about words only used by newspapers -- “boffin,” “tots,” “frogman” and “lags” were the first four. The response was crazy.

Beech: So you were “left reeling” by a “Twitter storm”?

Hutton: When I turned my phone back on in London, I’d been sent dozens of words. I had 50 words by 10 a.m., and every time I tweeted one, people sent in six more. There were 225 by the following evening. I still get them sent in every day.

Beech: I like “boffin,” described as anyone with a university job, who did elementary science at school or who has a lab coat. Which is your favorite?

Hutton: I love “romp,” because it’s very suggestive, but actually means all manner of things. In British papers, it generally means some kind of sexual activity, but it’s nicely vague. Soccer teams that win easily are described as having “romped home.” Every so often, a player will celebrate by “romping” with a “vice girl.”

Beech: The archetypal headline given to journalism students used to be “Red Vicar in Mercy Dash to Palace Disaster Scene.” Can you beat that?

Hutton: The one I came up with for the book was “Tecs Quiz Tug-of-Love Gymslip Mum on Murder Bid.” If you speak Journalese, you can work out what that means, but it’s baffling to anyone else.

Beech: Any reaction from politicians to the project?

Hutton: Politicians all devour news, so they’ve been very keen. I had a trip around Scandinavia with (U.K. opposition leader) Ed Miliband at the start of the year, by the end of which he told me he’d become obsessed with my “Journalese game.” Several of his suggestions are in the book.

But everyone’s doing it. I get these text messages from people inside Downing Street saying things like: “Have you got ‘embroiled in scandal?’” and I’ll know which newspaper story they’ve just read.

“Romps, Tots and Boffins” is published by Elliott & Thompson (136 pages, 9.99 pounds).

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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