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Jewish World Review June 13, 2002 / 3 Tamuz, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports


Roil pain


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | A journalist I know said she kept running into the verb roil in the newspaper. "What's going on with this?" she said. Of course, as soon as she pointed it out I started noticing it all over the place. There were stories in The New York Times the other day mentioning the factors that were roiling the British rail system and the roiling political context of the game of soccer. And the same day's San Francisco Chronicle had a story about anti-government protests that were roiling the eastern region of Algeria and a business page reference to the roiling electricity market, not to mention a headline describing Eminem as the "Roiling Rapper."

There's nothing new about roil -- it has been around since Shakespeare's time as a slightly recondite synonym for "churn up" or "perturb." But when I did a search in a collection of major newspapers, it turned out the verb is more than nine times as frequent now as it was twenty years ago, even when you correct for the changing size of the database -- in fact it's up thirty percent in just the last year.

That's a remarkable pop, all the more since there's no external reason for it -- I mean, it isn't as if the world is nine times more turbulent than it was in 1982. But then roil was tailor-made for recycling as a newspaper vogue word -- a bit recherché and poetic, but not so obscure that readers can't pick up a general sense of disruption. It's a favorite of headline writers -- not surprising, given that it only has four letters, two of them skinny ones: "Migrant Pickers Roil Watermelon Capital," "Anger and Isolation Roil Israeli Arabs," or "Greenspan Remarks Roil Markets" -- the stock markets alone account for about 15 percent of all the roilees in the press. But reporters use the verb in all sorts of stories, and in all sorts of ways. Sometimes roil seems to be a synonym for rile or roll, or even reel, as in "The mind roils." But then, a certain murkiness of meaning seems just about right for roil.

You don't hear roil a lot in everyday conversation. It isn't really a word of American English at all -- it belongs to the patois of that exotic alter-America that we read about in the newspapers, a world populated by strongmen, fugitive financiers, and troubled teens, where ire is always being fueled until violence flares, spawning hatred and stirring fears until hopes are dashed. The Associated Press's Jack Cappon once imagined how it would sound if ordinary people actually used journalese in their conversation over the backyard fence:

"Joe, my concern has been escalating for weeks…. What’s triggering our area youths, who keep sparking confrontations?

"Well, Bill, they certainly shattered the stillness of this affluent neighborhood with their drug-related pre-dawn rampage."

This is a venerable dialect. It has been around ever since the mass circulation penny newspapers first appeared around a hundred and fifty years ago -- the garish, sensational dailies that Dickens satirized in Martin Chuzzlewit under names like The Sewer, The Stabber, and The New York Rowdy Journal. Granted, the language of the press has gotten more sedate in recent times, now that most of the tabloids have folded and reporters have taken to drinking chardonnay and cosmopolitans. Yet modern newspaper diction still evokes the language of the theatrical melodramas that became popular around the same time as the penny press. It's a tone which disappeared from serious fiction around the 1920's, and which you don't even hear much in hard-boiled detective stories nowadays. In fact the only place other than newspapers where you routinely run into verbs like roil is in gothic romances and especially pornography, where synonyms for "churn" are always in high demand.

Editors are always deploring the excesses of journalese, but for every embellishment they manage to discourage, three new ones spring up in its place. Along with the spectacular growth of roil, for example, the last twenty years have seen sevenfold increases in the use of ratchet and slated: "As tensions ratchet up, new peace talks are slated for next month."

Reporters tell you that they choose words like roil and ratchet because they were taught in journalism classes that they should try to use action words. Saying that the mayor's decision roiled voters feels more vivid than merely saying that the decision troubled them -- it makes it sound as if something has actually taken place since the last edition.

The facts may be the same one way or the other, but then journalists know that what sells papers isn't facts but stories -- the more dramatic and sanguinary, the better. As a newspaper maxim has it, "If it bleeds, it leads." You can't affect what happened at the city council meeting last night, but you can at least describe it in the same language you'd use to summarize the plot of an Indiana Jones movie -- "Embattled Mayor Rips Foes as Deadline Looms." That headline could appear as easily in The New York Times as in the New York Rowdy Journal; it's just the way the press makes the world sound newsworthy. Melodrama and news -- the two were born at the same moment, and they've been talking in the same voice ever since.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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01/04/02: Literal frustration
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© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg