OFFBEAT OREGON HISTORY: A weekly newspaper column that has evolved into a suite of public-history resources, including:

  • ... a daily podcast
  • ... a weekly RSS feed
  • ... a Facebook page
  • ... a Tumblr feed
  • ... a calendar of live history shows in pubs
  • ... a browsable Web archive (352 columns, at last count)

It's accessed through an anchor page, linked here.



WICKED PORTLAND: A book about the late-1800s underworld of Portland, Oregon, including ...

  • ... Rascally politicians
  • ... Saloons and gambling dens
  • ... Naughty ladies of every description
  • ... Shanghai artists and their victims (and would-be victims)
  • ... Corrupt cops and mayors
  • ... The world's dumbest-ever drug smugglers

Published by The History Press in June 2012. Here's a link to the "lost chapter" (cut from the book for lack of space); the main web site for the book is here.



PULP-LIT PRODUCTIONS is a publishing house in which I am principal partner. It specializes in annotated editions of pulp-fiction classics. Titles published to date include The John Carter of Mars Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard. Upcoming projects include The Tarzan of the Apes Duology (October 2015) and The Lost Continent (December 2015), both by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and The Novels and Novellas of H.P. Lovecraft (March 2016).

The details are here.



MISCELLANEOUS WRITINGS: Some published, some not, accessed through a table of contents, here.

The airplane pictured above, by the way, is the one featured in this story, which is one of the best things I've ever written. Do check it out.



ABOUT ME: Everything you need to know, and a bunch of extra stuff you don't, about Yours Truly.




Finn's Grumpy List

A complete register of every word combination that annoyed me in any way while I was on the copy desk at the newspaper. Sadly, I think it cost me some goodwill after the city editor slipped into my queue, retrieved a copy and used it to beat reporters about the head and shoulders (cliche intended) at a staff meeting. (shakes fist) Meddling kids! But seriously: Enjoy! But just don't take this too seriously.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: Just because something is on this list does not mean you shouldn’t use it! I personally use “slated,” “nix” and “woe” all the time, especially. And I don’t hate myself for doing it. This list is essentially just for fun. It serves better as a sort of vizier – the Turkish sultan’s slave adviser, who could be killed any time for any reason – than as a master. Enjoy, and if you see one of your favorites lampooned herein, don’t take it personally.)

HAIL: Used as an active verb in headlines and sluglines for stories about very little. Usually, the presence of this word in a headline means nothing is actually happening, but the reporter (or the reporter’s editor) is very excited about the subject, so an excuse to write about it needed to be manufactured. EXAMPLE: “Lawmakers hail plan to raise taxes on cigs, beer, sex toys.”

WOES: Still in the English language because of a technicality. This word was retired from regular usage shortly after Spenser found a publisher for “The Faerie Queene.” It lives on in headlines because it’s short.

TOUT: Almost-synonym for “HAIL” but implying more ownership or familiarity. Same comments apply.

CALLS WERE NOT IMMEDIATELY RETURNED: A way to say “The slack bastard never got back to me” without offending said slack bastard. Only candy-asses worry about offending a guy who’s been blowing them off throughout a day and a half of diligent badgering via voice- and e-mail. If the badgering has been going on for less than the industry-standard four hours, just say he could not be reached for comment; otherwise, delete the “immediately.”

NIX: A verb that only exists in newspaper headlines. Go ahead and use it; just don’t expect anyone to know what the hell you’re talking about. The Pig Latin version, Ixnay, is actually more widely recognized and understood.

SOLON: Still in the dictionary as a synonym for “Legislator” because Joe the Word Remover got fired for smoking pot on the job at Webster’s on April 1, 1936, a week before it was scheduled to be dumped, and his position was left dark to save money. However, SOLON isn’t a totally useless word. In fact, this word is fabulously useful when playing Scrabble, because you can depend on one of your competitors challenging it. After all, nobody but you, O headline guru, knows what the hell it means — you and that one homeless guy with the master’s degree in Classics.

AID: Unlike “Solon” or “Nix,” this is an actual word in current use … but not as a verb. Unless you’re a staff writer at The Onion (“AREA MAN AIDS SOLONS, GETS FANFARE”), try not to use this word as a verb for anything, especially a headline. (Hey, “Help” only has one more letter!) It just sounds dumb and cheap.

SLATED: You sinner. You know you use this one. It’s just so much shorter than “scheduled” or “planned.” Unfortunately, nobody outside a newspaper office has “slated” anything since the Eisenhower administration. Every year, more and more of the your fellow Knowers Of What “Slated” Means are called away to their eternal reward. By the year 2012, they will all be dead and you’ll be able to start using “SLATED” to win Scrabble games, too, like “SOLON.”

QUIPPED: Uh … have you ever, ever, EVER seen, heard or written this word in any context other than a newspaper article involving a public official making a speech? No? Me neither. Oh, wait, I have! It appeared in the text of “Dick Hamilton’s Touring Car,” a book written for boys age 12 to 14 published in 1913.

DECLINED: A euphemism for “refused,” used by news pusses to avoid offending people who won’t answer a question (“Nixon declined to comment”) or  want to hide behind anonymity (“A highly placed government source who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information”). In the same spirit as “CALLS WERE NOT IMMEDIATELY RETURNED,” above. Treat like any other euphemism (like “went to be with Jesus” instead of “died,” or “comfort station” instead of “toilet”) and fix it so it says what it means.

BLAST: As a verb, as in “DeFozzybear blasts GOP plan to outlaw baklava.” There is nothing inherently wrong with “blast” as a word, just that virtually every news article it appears in is a shill piece. It’s a lot like “HAIL” or “TOUT” and the same comments apply. Consider it a red flag marking a story that’s about very little. Speaking of political stuff …

OBAMA DENIES McCAIN’S CHARGE THAT HE’S A TOTAL LOSER: On the copy desk, we get treated to a lot of stories that basically function as amplifiers for political candidates’ “dirty tricks” departments. Always leave these stories unpublished. At best they make you look desperate to fill space, and at worst they make you look like a partisan.

OUR MOST VULNERABLE CITIZENS: Politicians love this term and have used it to the point where it drips with insincerity. Plus, it’s profoundly annoying. If a politician is quoted using this term, move mountains as needed to get the quote out of the story. If a non-politically-active person is quoted using this term, advise the subject to seek prompt professional help from someone who’s authorized to prescribe medication.

TRAGIC, TRAGEDY: Please, please don’t use this term to refer to the bitter fruits of criminal activities. “Tragedy” is NOT a synonym for “something really bad.” A tragedy is a metaphorical reference to a dramatic tradition in which bad stuff just happens for no immediate reason. In real life, bad stuff almost always happens for a reason – and the person responsible for that reason is usually eagerly spinning the event as a “tragedy” so as to avoid accepting responsibility without appearing to shift it onto anyone else. This is not only misleading, but insulting to the victims of his/her negligence or malice. Be especially vigilant about lawyers using this word as, for obvious reasons, it’s one of their faves. Most often the word sounds insincere and insulting to those directly affected. It is also, by definition, an editorializing word. Using it means you are making a value judgment on the events you describe this way (although you’d probably be hard pressed to find anyone to disagree with your editorial comment, it’s still an editorial comment). This word is best restricted to use in reference to dramatic productions.

‘TIS THE SEASON: An excellent phrase to use at Christmastime if you want to sound just like 8,000 advertising-agency copywriters, fresh out of college, who still think it’s clever, having not yet been exposed to all 7,999 other examples of the same alleged witticism. In other words, unless you’re making an ironic statement about cheesy seasonal clichés, this one is best left for the amateurs to abuse.



GHOSTS, GOBLINS AND GHOULS, OH MY! (Or any other play on “Lions, tigers and bears, oh my!”): All the stuff about ‘TIS THE SEASON applies here, plus this: Using this shopworn trick telegraphs to everyone that you (a) consider yourself a pop culture maven, yet (b) haven’t been exposed to much pop culture yet, since if you had you’d know better than to use this line. It doesn’t get much dorkier than this.

RAIN DIDN’T DAMPEN THE SPIRITS OF: A pistol-hot candidate for the “Most Exhausted Metaphor of the Decade” award.


NOTED: A very sneaky word that must be watched carefully for, along with the very-similar “pointed out.” Reporters tend to use it as a synonym for “said” --  especially when they personally agree with what’s being quoted. That’s because subconsciously they know that “noted” and “pointed out” both carry a strong implication that they reference a proven fact. Unless the statement being made really is a proven fact – “Cheney noted that the president is from Texas” – using “noted” will editorialize a story: “Cheney noted that the Democrats are ‘a bunch of chumps.’”

EXPLAINED: Not as bad as “NOTED,” but still easily and frequently abused; it implies an agreed-upon subtext, which may or may not be the case. It also implies the acceptability of the explanation. When in doubt, remember … you can never go wrong with “said.”

SAYS: As opposed to “said.” You might think putting your news article in the present tense makes it seem fresher and more immediate. And you’d be right … for maybe 20 percent of newspaper readers. The other 80 percent, including your editors, will roll their eyes and make exasperated noises. Nothing says “I’m under 20, work for a 2,000-circulation weekly and don’t have a journalism degree” like a low-hanging-fruit feature written in the present tense.

PERHAPS: One of the subtlest “weasel words,” as in “It was perhaps the largest gathering of politicians ever.” Well … was it or wasn’t it? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a tricycle scientist, to figure out that the writer has no idea whether it was the biggest or not. Using this word as a substitute for thorough fact-checking is like hanging a giant flashing “Dirk Diggler” sign on your story that says, “I DID NOT DO MY HOMEWORK.”

RECENT MEMORY: Very much like “Perhaps,” this phrase is used so the reporter can oversell whatever point is being made. So, for instance, he/she/it can call an event “the only quintuple murder/suicide in recent memory,” and not have to worry about some Hysterical Society mope writing a letter to the editor pointing out that waaaaay back in 1997, another one happened. After all, what exactly does “recent” mean?

MAKE NO MISTAKE: This is a great phrase to use if you want to sound like an insincere, sanctimonious prick. In any other usage, it’s like a special prefix that signifies that you’re lying, bluffing, using the power of affirmation to boost your self-esteem, or all of the above.

GETS THE NOD: As a general rule, if a slang phrase is old enough to be acceptable in a headline, it’s also hopelessly dated and dorky and nobody ever uses it unless they’re reading an old 1950s Tom Swift book to middle-schoolers at the library … or writing a headline. “OK” is short, and hasn’t been dorky since Andrew Jackson croaked. It works much better than “nod.”

PROVERBIAL: Lots of people use this word like a magic talisman that makes any cliché, no matter how awful and shopworn, OK again. “It got the proverbial nod.” “’Tis the proverbial season.” “It’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.” Delivered with a slight tone of self-deprecating irony, this trick works well to impress college freshmen, but with more experienced and/or sophisticated audiences you’ll just end up looking even dumber than if you’d just used the cliché in the first place.

AND MORE: As in, “The evening will feature jazz music, ballroom dancing, hors d’oeuvres and more.”  If there’s more, say what it is, specifically. When people see “and more,” or its more brazen brother, “much much more,” they immediately assume you’ve run to the end of your list of stuff and want to leave the erroneous impression that you haven’t. In other words, it’s instantly and subconsciously decoded into a red flag that tags you as a liar. Presumably, that’s not what you want to accomplish as a journalist. So, even if there is more, don’t say so!

BATTLE OF THE BULGE: Using this term to refer to weight-loss stories was funny when it was first trotted out in 1945, a day or two after the Germans lost World War II. All the laughs were sucked out of this line well before “Gilligan’s Island” started being broadcast in color.

(WHATEVERS) GONE WILD: Yeah, you’re DEFINITELY the first person EVER to pun on this one.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: Usually used as a headline for stories that have no relationship to the literary work by a similar title, except that there’s a river somehow involved. So, it’s as close to a meaningless headline as you can get without publishing placeholder text (“Thurston football headline goes here”). The same goes for the following movie titles that get way more action than they should at their advanced ages:
—The Bridges of Madison (or Benton, Linn, Lane, Hazzard, whatever) County
—Sleepless In Seattle (or Corvallis, Philomath, Albany, Reno, whatever)
—Mr. Hephastus Goes to Washington

I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN (headline): Usually used as a headline for stories that have no connection to the song other than that they are about roses or rose gardens.  The goal is to share a wink-wink moment with people who, like you, are cool enough to be familiar with the old song. This is probably not going to enhance your credibility with people who either don’t know the song or remember it better than you do and can recall exactly why you should not be using it in a headline to go with that particular story.

ANOMALY: A great word to use when you want to sound like a defensive public servant trying to explain in the vaguest possible terms why he/she should not be held accountable for something bad that has happened on his/her watch.

WEAR MANY HATS: The single most abused metaphor of business copy, and that’s saying something (out of the box, anyone? How about a paradigm shift? Sy-ner-GY! Sy-ner-GY!)

BEST PRACTICES: See “WEAR MANY HATS” entry, above. Hey, wait a minute. Who are you and what have you done with the journalist who sits at that desk?

NO LATER THAN: As in “Comments must be received no later than 3:16 p.m. Tuesday.” Yer busted! Forty lashes. Now quit cutting and pasting from that press release and translate it into regular spoken English. Starting with this ugly little bureaucratic phrase, which, in the Phillistine hinterlands without City Hall’s hallowed walls, translates into “By.”

TIME CERTAIN: As in “Public comments will be accepted at 12 p.m. (sic), time certain.” Unless you’re doing a story about how the government agency this came from won’t speak to the public unless it’s noon, don’t ever let this phrase appear under your by-line. E-ver.

GIRLS SOCCER, BOYS PICKLEBALL: OK, I know this one’s a losing battle; every sports department I know uses “girls” and “boys” instead of “girls’” and “boys’.” Every sports department claims “Boys” is a descriptive, not a possessive. That’s a steaming pile of used Alpo, and I can prove it. Grab your Funk & Wagnall’s and look up the word “Womens.” That’s right, with no apostrophe, just “Womens.” Found it yet? No? OK, hold that thought. Ever heard of “Women basketball?” No? Yet “Womens basketball” is, as we have proven, wrong. The only way you can get this syntax through a basic Socratic logical process is as a possessive, with the apostrophe. But then, Socrates did end up getting killed by an angry pack of Athenian swells who preferred proud ignorance to the humiliation of being logically proven wrong … um, never mind. Carry on.

AN HISTORICAL OCCASION: ‘Ell’s bells, mate! Blimey, it’s ‘ard to rememember not to drop yer aitches, innit? Wot’s ‘at? You don’t speak Cockney? Or north-country-England English? Well, then, you have no excuse for not using the correct form of this phrase, “A HISTORICAL OCCASION.”

SIZE MATTERS: Oo, nothing excites your reader’s throbbing li’l heart like a playful li’l sex innuendo like this one. Feel free to whip this one out any time you’re writing about something large, small, or both, and you want your reader to know your pink ’78 Dodge conversion van still has a moon-shaped plastic window and bumper stickers that say “LI’L HUSTLER,” “KEEP ON TRUCKIN’” and “SCUBA DIVERS DO IT DEEPER.”

WAKE-UP CALL: This metaphor is aged and tired. It really needs to be found a nice home in a facility with a name like “Sunset Manor” or “Twilight Court,” and quietly forgotten about until it appears in the obituaries. Besides, when’s the last time you actually stayed in a hotel that didn’t have an alarm clock in the room? Nineteen-seventy-what?

RESIDENCE HALL: Your local university would really, really like for you to stop calling them “dormitories” or “dorms.” Also, your local funeral parlor would like you to stop using the English verb “to die” when referring to their customers (“passed on” or “went to be with his Risen Savior” sounds so much nicer, don’t’cha think?). People who want to re-shape the English language by fiat aren’t even worth wasting your breath on. Just ignore them and, whatever you do, don’t ever give one of those mice a cookie.

SAID IN AN INTERVIEW FRIDAY: Good job, ace! You actually TALKED to a SOURCE! You’re clearly proud of yourself for having achieved this, and why shouldn’t you be? So go ahead, put this line in the story, preferably in the lede, so that the reading public can know what a swell reporter you are. While you’re at it, why don’t you make it “TOLD THIS REPORTER, DURING AN INTERVIEW AT AN EXCLUSIVE HOLLYWOOD RESTAURANT FRIDAY”? You know, that really impresses contest judges too.

“THIS BREAKTHROUGH RESEARCH WILL ASSIST FACULTY (sic.) IN DEVELOPING SOLUTIONS TO MANY ISSUES PERTAINING TO THEIR VETERINARY NEEDS,” SAID DR. ROGER WINDBAGUE, PH.D., ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT THE DORCAS SNEGGLEY SCHOOL OF VETERINARY STUDIES AT OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY’S DOWNTOWN VALSETZ CAMPUS. “UTILIZING THIS PARADIGM-SHIFTING TECHNOLOGY WILL ENABLE TECHNICIANS IN THE OVER (sic.) 40 COUNTRIES IN WHICH OSU HAS A PHYSICAL PRESENCE TO …” You get the picture, right? Quotes like this appear only in press releases crafted lovingly by P.R. people and tweaked here and there by the alleged speaker to sound more erudite. Sure, it’s easy to paste them right into your article. But do you really expect your reader to believe your nut graf when it’s so obvious that the giant mouthful of bland polysyllabic mush in the next graf, which you’re telling them is a direct quote from a real person, isn’t? If you must include something like this, at least change the word “said” to “wrote in a press release.” That’s not quite right either, but it’s closer.

A PERFECT STORM: Unlike great footwear, great metaphors wear out in just a few weeks. This one is a case in point. Please, please, PLEASE, for the love of God, don’t force this poor zombie to yet again claw its way out of its grave and attack your readers’ brains when all it really wants to do is rest in peace.

HOOKED ON FISHING (or anything else involving a hook): Puh-LEEZE! Have mercy! How about a headline that actually says something other than “I still think the oldest ‘headline quip’ in the book is funnier’n all git-out?”

HARVEST: The rule of thumb is, if you didn’t plant it, you can’t harvest it. Never use this word to refer to animal life, or to logging or mining operations (exception: Tree-farm operations like Weyerhaeuser runs out Marcola way). It’s a wonderful warm-fuzzy word that’s being relentlessly exploited and thereby ruined by euphemists seeking a warm-fuzzy alternative to words like “slaughter” or “butcher” (a cow, a chicken, a pig); “shoot” or “kill” (a deer, an elk, a bear); and “log” or “clear-cut” (a forest). Do try to fix this when it’s used for something like this. Otherwise, we’re going to have to come up with another term to use to describe getting food out of our gardens or farms.

“FUN”RAISER: I don’t care if it’s the name of your event. If you want this word printed in the paper, you’re gonna have to buy an ad to do it. (Or, of course, butter up the publisher. That might work too.)

PABLO PICASSO DAZE, CHERRY PIE DAZE, ETC. (names of festivals). See “ ‘FUN’RAISER,” above.

A FIVE-MONTH INVESTIGATION: As in “Tens of millions of Americans drink water that has tested positive for minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals, and they don’t even realize it, The Associated Press learned during a five-month investigation.” (3/11/08, slug “BC-PharmaWaters III Abridged”). Hmm, what exactly does this mean? I don’t know ‘bout you, but I’ve had some stories that lingered in the “get to this soon” file on my desk for five months after the initial interview before I finished them. Does that count? Sure it does! Because the goal of this line is to communicate to your editor — oops, I mean the reader — that YOU, the reporter, worked like a mo-fo to cover this story. Good job, tiger!

PROVOCATIVE: OK, exactly what the solid-gold, chocolate-dipped hell does this word mean anyway? You don’t? Well, me neither.


PLAY HOST TO: Once upon a time, some idiot at the AP decided that the verb “to host” — well, wasn’t. Ever since, this clumsy, dorky construction has been used as a synonym. The only thing you communicate when you use it is that you have been indoctrinated into the AP Club. Welcome aboard, bub! Now that you’ve got that out of your system and we all know how cool you are, how about switching back to English? And speaking of showing off …

TO BE OR NOT TO BE/ OUT, DAMNED SPOT/ALAS, POOR YORICK/POUND OF FLESH: OK, here’s the deal: William Shakespeare died five centuries ago. Since then, his works have gotten pretty decent play (no pun intended). So pretty much any Shakespeare quote your reader will recognize is hackneyed enough to make you look like you’re showing off how erudite you are. This is a particular problem in Shakespeare, and it’s in addition to the usual problem that arises when you yield to the temptation to substitute a literary reference, pun, cool alliteration, etc. for useful content. It’s probably best to find another way to convey to your reader what a smart person you are.

RAN ROUGHSHOD: Worn-out saying. Communicates nothing. Works great – as long as you describe how the rights of the victim were trampled BEFORE you use it! If you drop this one and expect the reader to hang on your words to learn how someone ran roughshod over someone else, you’ll be waiting a long time. Your reader will roll his/her eyes and move on to the next headline.

(SIC): Unprofessionally snarky in almost all uses (hey, I did say “almost!”). Using this is like correcting someone’s grammar in public, which almost everyone knows is rude. Especially avoid using this when you’re exposing dirt on the speaker or writer – it comes off as an extremely cheap shot, undermines your credibility and gives the person you’re exposing the dirt on an opening for a personal counterattack. At other times, it’s just mildly cheap. Don’t use it. Fix the quote for grammar — using parentheses if you have to.

GOT MILK/DIESEL/GIN? An ad campaign from decades ago – which, coincidentally, is when punning on it in headlines and ledes ceased to be funny and started being annoying. The sole exception:  MORRIS, Ill. (AP) — Got milk?     Police say a trailer loaded with 14 tons of double-stuffed Oreos has overturned, spilling the cookies still in their plastic sleeves into the median and roadway. (AP wire feed, 5/15/08)


CHICKEN FARMING 101: INTRODUCTION TO POULTRY (or whatever): This is a bit like constantly being called by the degrading nickname you got called in middle school. Didn’t you get enough of those cattle-call 101 classes in college without having it inflicted on you all over again? Yes? Well, so did all the readers – plus, this trick is so hackneyed by now they’re probably sick of it all over again. Plus, note the colon in the title. This segues straight into the next one:

BLAH BLAH BLAH: BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. (Book title pattern: “Clever” three-word “short title,” followed by a colin and a short paragraph explaining what the book is about.) Very popular in academia – in fact, I can’t think of an academic publication whose name doesn’t use this formula. Do me a favor, will you please? When your write your book, PLEASE don’t use this formula for the title.

DASH: One of the most useful punctuation marks ever, but you can use it to editorialize a story. Case in point: “Police found Vargas — who had stripped off his inmate clothing and was only wearing his underwear and socks.” (AP, Oregon state wire, “BC-OR-InmateEscape,” 6-16) This implies strongly that Vargas’ state of dress was particularly shocking or noteworthy. Replacing the dash with a comma will leave you looking a lot more professional, unless you’re writing for the Depoe Bay Beacon — in which case the headline probably says something like “NAKED CROOK BUSTED,” so never mind!

MORE THAN TWICE THE LEGAL LIMIT: In DUI stories, as in “His blood alcohol was 0.17 percent, more than twice the legal limit.” This phrase should be cut from the copy for three reasons: (1) Anybody who doesn’t know .08 percent is the level at which one is automatically assumed to be drunk has lived under a rock since 1973; (2) there is no legal limit – people have been arrested and convicted for DUII with .03 percent BAC; and (3) there is no legal limit; you can drink all you want as long as you don’t drive! Anyway, the phrase is just stupid, but it’s in every DUII story. Cut it out.

FULL OF LIFE: You can use this phrase to foreshadow the death of the person you’re talking about, but unless you’re writing for a pretty low-brow audience, it’s probably too blunt an instrument to use. Seriously, when’s the last time you heard of anybody who’s still on the sunny side of the soil line being “full of life?” It’s something you always, always, always hear said of people who were from this mortal coil untimely ripp’d. (See? Shakespeare just doesn’t work! Especially Frankensteined like that.)

GIVES BACK: As in “Sorority sisters give back,” “District Attorneys give back,” etc. Used as a handy headline for stories about offices full of people donating something – time, cash, publicity, whatever – to a worthy cause. It’s short, punchy and tells your reader RIGHT AWAY that this is a boring low-hanging-fruit kind of feature that’s not worth his/her time reading … which is pretty much always true, so I don’t guess I can criticize it as a bad headline per se … but I will admit that I am really sick of seeing it.

LOGGING TRUCK: There is no such thing. That’s a LOG TRUCK you’re trying to refer to, and nothing screams “I just moved here from L.A. or Manhattan and don’t have a clue about the so-called culture of these unlettered local savages, nor do I care” quite as definitively as calling a log truck a “logging truck.” Except, maybe, mispronouncing “Oregon” as “Oregawn” or “Awregun,” “Nevada” as “Nevahda” or “Colorado” as “Colorahdo.”

WE THE PEOPLE: Stick this little gem in a story, on any subject, and you will hear a giant sucking sound — it’s the sound of your credibility pouring out of the hole you just shot in your foot. Never, never, NEVER use this phrase unless you are writing a spoof of a spittle-spraying letter to the editor. In which case, go for it, because that’s where you usually find this phrase and that’s where it belongs.

BIG OIL, BIG TOBACCO, ETC. This reference is really cheap. If you think tobacco interests are screwing somebody over, say so in a way that won’t cause the people who really need to know that to dismiss your article as so much left-wing claptrap and partisan positioning and leave it unread. Don’t even quote people saying it, unless your goal is to make them look petty and stupid.

ARTIST: As in “Country artist Johnny Cash.” Used to be, “artist” was used as a synonym for “painter.” That was a bit like calling someone from the U.S. an “American” – which is perfectly true, but not very descriptive when Argentina, Mexico, Canada and Belize are also peopled with people from the American continents. Common usage, though, rescues the term from suffering from its vagueness. This is no longer the case with “artist.” It now covers a broad range of activities, including traditional painting and sculpture as well as performance art such as singing, dancing and manipulating Muppets. If somebody is a singer, call him/her a singer. If somebody is a painter, call him/her a painter. You can whip the ego-stroking “artist” line out on second reference if you like, but it means very little any more.

THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL OF SECONDHAND SMOKE: This is one of the tobacco activists’ faves. Never let it get in your paper, even in a quote, because it’s not provably true (you cannot prove a negative.) Worse, common sense tells you that one part per quadrillion, at least, is a safe level of secondhand smoke, right? So if you make or repeat this statement as fact, everyone except the anti-smoking activists will think you’re a spinner or a liar or both. In any case, there’s no winning this one. What the activists mean is that no one knows for sure what the safe level of secondhand smoke is because scientific studies have not been done. If you must, phrase it thus.

AN ESTIMATED 70 PERCENT:  Sounds pretty good, eh? Until you start trying to figure out who’s doing the estimating. In an estimated 99 percent of instances (including this one!) the number was pulled right out of the reporter’s ass. Your readers are not stupid. They know this. This is one of those lines that makes people launch off on asyntactic rants about the media on their blogs. If you use this, you must immediately attribute it so folks can see who is estimating the number. Of course, if you have a source, you won’t use this construction – you’ll say “Hasselhoff estimated that 70 percent of his career has been spent in debauchery” instead, right?

PIMP OUT, BLING: Ten years ago (or more) these were hip new slang terms (well, OK, PIMP was an old word but it was being used in a new way). If you used them then, you sent a message to other young hipsters that you were one of them, that you were … with it, y’dig? Groovy. What happened is the rest of us – dentists, chicken farmers, copy editors, in our 30s and 40s and so far out of hip school we barely even remember any of our lessons (“dude” is a happy exception) – discovered that we could get taken more seriously by the young and the fresh if we used it. As a result, if you refer to “pimping out” someone or “bling bling,” the only message you send is that you’re old, dorky and fakin’ it. The same is true, for the same reasons, for even older terms like “homie” and “pop a cap,” and for washed-up trends like the Macarena. Think of how the Macarena died. Al Gore went on television and did it. He was fakin’ it, and everyone knew it, and the dance fad ended right there because if Al Gore knew about it, how fresh could it possibly be?

STUPID (STU• pid, adj.): (1) Using a dictionary definition cribbed right out of Webster’s as a headline for a news article because you couldn’t think of a real headline for your story. (2) Using a fake dictionary definition for the same reason. (3) Selecting random plants from the parking area landscaping, rolling them up and smoking them.

APPROXIMATELY: Used as a synonym for “roughly” or “about” by reporters who are eager to appear smarter than they actually are. There’s never a good reason to actually use this word in a news story. Leave it for whoever writes the press releases for the County Commissioners – they love it and use it every chance they get, along with several other multi-syllabic words that have one-syllable meanings such as “utilize” and “to dialog” (sic).

THE CITY (with “the “C” capitalized in a generic reference, as in “The City is sending the Mayor to the conference”): OK, here’s the deal. God gets His name capitalized. Therefore, if you work for the city, you figure the word “city” ought to be capitalized too. Unfortunately, when God told the sun to stay up for an extra few hours so the Hebrews could slaughter more Phillistines, it listened, but when the city told the English Language to capitalize its generic reference so it could seem more important, well, it didn’t. I guess, with apologies to Lyle Lovett, that’s the difference between God and the city. Also, if you capitalize “city” in generic reference, knowledgeable readers will suspect (with good reason) that you either drank the Kool-Aid at City Hall or cut and pasted the copy straight from the city’s press release.

STAFF: As in “Staff listened to the complaint.” This word is not actually a proper noun, but it’s used as one by government folks. Be sure and translate it into English. Usually, that sounds like “City staff members listened to the complaint.” Use of this word as a proper noun is wonky and excluding, and makes you sound like you’re one of them rather than a member of the public. (The comments listed in “THE CITY,” above, apply to this as well.)

CLEAR SKIES INITIATIVE, HEALTHY FOREST ACT, USA PATRIOT ACT, ETC: With these and most similar laws, there is an ongoing and vigorous debate over whether their titles accurately represent their effects or even their intentions. By calling them by these possibly misleading names, are we not supporting the government’s side of these debates? Maybe it’s time to start referring to stuff like this as “Bill 1535, the ‘clear skies initiative’” just to make it perfectly clear that we are not endorsing the official government position.

THESAURUS: Do what you want, but I recommend that you never own or use one of these. The problem is, when you’re writing, your subconscious mind is hard at work picking just the right word. Each one has levels of meaning that cannot really be explained in a dictionary. You know them, at some level. When you reach for a book to pick the right word, you short-circuit this process and take a lot of depth out of your writing. Remember the purpose of writing is to communicate as much as possible, not to manage how you appear or sound.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS HAS LEARNED: Wow, as a waste of space this is right up there with “IN THIS REPORTER’S OPINION.” It’s supposedly attribution, but seriously, how does it bring any new information to a long story written by an AP reporter? It’s simple tooting of one’s own horn. Cut it right outta there – alone, or in the company of the entire story.

THIS REPORTER: As in “This reporter visited the troubled business and learned …” The original hallmark of an untrained amateur. You’re not one, right? Don’t use this phrase unless you want to masquerade as one. And NO, saying "this writer" doesn't get you off the hook.

TRANSPORTED: As in “Jones was transported to the hospital suffering from facial injuries.” You see, this is why we hire reporters to cover police and ambulance news. Because somebody has to translate that stuff out of Cop Lingo and into English. So, please translate. In case you’re wondering, “transported” translates into “taken,” “brought” and sometimes “hauled.” “Suffering from” usually means the same thing conveyed by the simple word, “with.” You get the picture.

LODGED: As in “Jones was lodged in the Edward R. Rippington III Memorial Hazzard County Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility.” See “TRANSPORTED,” above. Same comments apply.

EDWARD R. RIPPINGTON III MEMORIAL HAZZARD COUNTY CORRECTIONAL AND REHABILITATION (sic) FACILITY. Translate this sort of thing into English phrases such as “the county jail,” please.

CANINE, K-9: In reports from law enforcement agencies, the boys in blue seem to feel using the term “dog” is terribly old-fashioned. In this, they seem way ahead of the rest of the world, which still speaks English. Since we’re writing for the rest of the world, please translate this whenever possible.

FACE IT: On second though, don’t. There has got to be a better way to communicate what you’re trying to say than this tired old dog. Go find it.

SHOTGUN SHACK: As in “He lives in public housing in an enclave called Bahama Village, a working-class neighborhood of close-set houses, some no bigger than a shotgun shack.” (BC-Ike-Key West Life,0845; moved on AP wire Sept. 8, 2008) OK, here’s the deal: A “shotgun house” (NOT shack) is an architectural style of home, long and skinny, with a front door and a back door and a traffic path that leads from front to back; so, basically, one room wide. “Shotgun” also refers to any long, skinny one-room-wide dwelling, be it a house, apartment or, yes, shack. So this reference is a bit like saying “bigger than a four-door car.” It means very little. The alliteration is nice, but a simile that actually means something would be much better.

TROOPERGATE, IRAN-CONTRAGATE, BLUE-DRESSGATE, BACON-AND-GERBILGATE, ETC. Man, is this one ever getting old -- every sad little Washington political drama getting branded with a “gate” suffix to recall the Watergate imbroglio. I bet everybody else is sick of it, too.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: See “Rain didn’t dampen the spirits of,” above.

APPALLED: This is a perfectly good English word that has been ruined because too many mendacious people use it in the service of lies and distortions. Because of this, it’s become a red flag for many people, identifying the speaker as potentially less than truthful. For this reason, it’s best to avoid using it.

SADDENED: Be careful with this one. It’s a favorite among passive-aggressive writers, as in “I am saddened by the recent article you published on blah blah blah.” The last damn thing you want to be is a passive-aggressive writer, right?

IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT: Journalism’s worst cliché. Actually, if you have world enough, and time, for this level of fact-checking, you’re probably unemployed and living in your mother’s basement right now, so this might be an important question for you! Otherwise, avoid this one; it makes you sound like a bad rip-off of a Ben Bradlee character in a low-budget newspaper movie. (Can't you just see Sally Field saying this, tossing her feathered hair as she extracts a Winston from a carton she's got tucked into her left  shoulder pad?)

IN THIS DAY AND AGE: Using this clapped-out cliché for anything is like whipping out the old “uphill in the snow, both ways” line and expecting someone to laugh. Someone might … if there’s someone with a severe cognitive disability in earshot.  Otherwise, fuggeddaboutit. Speaking of which …

FUGGEDDABOUTIT: Yeah, the Sopranos was a great show, but this body has been in the trunk way too long, and it’s now starting to smell bad.

TAKE (my career, my performance, my criminal record, whatever) TO THE NEXT LEVEL: What can I say, other than -- NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

I'M  TIRED  OF (being insulted by Bruce Campbell, my opponent lying about my record, magazines saying flat butts are the thing, etc.) This is an excellent illustration of how dangerous a cliche can be. Nine times out of 10 when this one is used, it means literally "I  don't like." How can you be tired of something when you never liked it in the first place? Using a cliche like this makes it easy for you to hand off control of what you're saying without noticing what you're doing. In any case, it's a really worn-out cliche and, because it implies a spirit of broad tolerance that has been pushed to the breaking point by outside forces, is a favorite of political types (see "MAKE  NO  MISTAKE," above). So just don't use it. No matter what you mean by it.

CAULKED  BOOTS: Closely related to "LOGGING  TRUCK," above, except that you actually will find "Caulked boots" in the dictionary. But you won't find it being used by a real logger. Anybody who's worked in the woods will tell you "caulked boots" are worn-out Wolverines that somebody has squirted Dap 100 Percent Silicone into to keep the water out. That's a "Cork boot" you're talking about, if you're talking about a logger's boot with spike soles.

RAMROD  STRAIGHT (posture): See "WAKE-UP  CALL,"  above.

RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT: Typically used as an introduction to an unsupported assertion by someone who wants to make it sound like the assertion is, in fact, supported by a huge boatload of scientific evidence that the writer just doesn't choose to share at this time. Any time you see this phrase without a specific reference to the research, you can safely bet your mortgage that the writer either doesn't know enough about it to defend it properly, or is spinning.


A couple that should just never be used:
(a) Wide-angle close-up of a dog.
(b) Politician with mouth open saying something emphatic or gesticulating freakishly (Hillary, this means you!).
(c) Somebody putting gas in a car with the shockingly-high price-per-gallon sign cleverly visible behind (or reflected in the side-view mirror, or silhouetted against the blue sky, or whatever – when it comes to illustrating a gas-price story, there is simply no non-dorky way to do it any more).
(d) Anything involving a really large cardboard check, giant scissors or spray-painted shovels, unless naked ladies are involved.
(e) Any photo of any person related in any way to the person named in the photo credit. Your baby pictures are for you, not for the paper.
(f) Carefully laid-out displays of seized drugs, guns, etc., with cops standing proudly nearby (usually with crossed arms or rifles/shotguns carried at port arms).
(g) A picture of some doofus kissing a trophy he/she just won (very popular pro golf or tennis shot)
(h) Anybody standing there like a total goob mugging for the camera in front of a white backdrop festooned with corporate logos (a super-popular Hollywood Event photo type)


A few classic wire selections to not run unless the alternative is empty space, a pink slip, or both:

  1. “Senate hopeful Barnwell Blathers blasts his opponent in a new series of TV ads.”
  2. “Moronic homeowner wants 20 percent more for his house than it’s worth, and after leaving it on the market for a couple years with no offers he’s decided to give it to the winner of an essay contest (50 words or less, please) if enough people enter and pay a $100 entry fee.” (By the way, have you ever seen one of these “contests” not get canceled? I haven’t.)
  3. “This person I’m writing about did something very, very exceptional, and I’m not going to tell you what until the last paragraph of this stupid newspaper article. (By the way, make sure the copy desk people don’t give it away in the headline, because I know my story is actually really boring and nobody will read it unless I trick them into it.)”
  4. “I went to Greece on my last vacation, and here’s what I did, and here’s some pictures of my kids frolicking in the Aegean. You can, too, if you’re ‘rico y suave’ enough to go to Greece.”

AP style points:

A few of them are total crap:
(a) “Item 1, Item 2, and Item 3.” Who is that extra comma hurting, anyway? And does it make sense to have one style for a series using commas and another for one that involves semicolons (“Item 1, with its friend A; Item 2, with its friend B; and Item 3, with its friend C”)? No, of course not. The AP style on this point is dumb. Ignore it if you can get away with it. But, if you’re like me, you can’t … life’s not fair, eh? 
(b) CHAIN SAW. Go ahead, follow AP style if you want to come off like some East Coast ivory tower guy who wouldn’t know what part of one to pull on to make it go. Otherwise, do like the locals do in real Oregon timber towns, and write “CHAINSAW.”
(c) .44 CALIBER MAGNUM HANDGUN. How dumb can these people be? “Magnum” is a brand name, true, but it applies to the CALIBER, not the stupid GUN. Go ahead, follow AP style if you want to come off like some East Coast ivory-tower guy who wouldn’t know which end of a .44 Magnum is the dangerous part. Otherwise, do like the locals do in real rural gun-owning households, and write “.44-MAGNUM-CALIBER HANDGUN.”
(d) NON-PROFIT, PRE-PURCHASE: Those hyphens really ought to be there, but the AP stylebook disagrees, so we ditch ‘em. Life’s not fair, eh?


Pay attention to it. Example from wire story run 7/8/08: “MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — Demonstrations on the town square show how divided people are over the school board's decision to fire a science teacher accused of preaching his Christian beliefs in the classroom and burning crosses on students' arms.” (emphasis mine). OK, what does the subtext of that italicized part say to you? Gratuitous infliction of pain on people in an attempt to proselytize, that’s what, with a healthy dose of KKK mojo mixed in (they’re the cross-burning people), right? But if you read the story far enough, you’ll find the following, starting in Graf 13: “Officials knew that Freshwater used a science tool to burn images of a cross on students' arms in December, according to findings by outside investigators. … Freshwater told investigators he simply was trying to demonstrate the device on three to eight students and described the images an "X,'' not a cross. But pictures show the images depict a cross, the report said.” See what I mean? By using the subtext to cheaply heighten the dramatic value in the lede by underexplaning, you effectively take an editorial position on it. Don’t do that.

Quotes that shake the Earth ...

... from the stampede of readers dropping the paper and running for the exit:

Gustav hammers Louisiana
A deteriorating Hurricane Gustav knocked out electricity and sent water spilling over floodwalls around New Orleans on Monday, but emergency managers said they remained cautiously optimistic that the area’s levees would hold up.
“The good news is that we haven’t had a breach,” Mayor Ray Nagin said to reporters, almost echoing what he said in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees and left 80 percent of the city flooded.
“A breach at this point in time would cause significant flooding,” Nagin said.

COMMENTARY: A hurricane breaching a levee in New Orleans would cause significant flooding? You’re kidding!

Ledes to inspire you ...

... to hit the bottle really, really hard:

^Energy, water demands are on collision course
   By Robert S. Boyd
   McClatchy Newspapers
   WASHINGTON — Like the old song, ``Love and marriage, love and marriage . . . you can't have one without the other,'' so it goes with energy and water.
   It takes a lot of water to produce energy. It takes a lot of energy to provide water. The two are inextricably linked, and claims on each are rising.
   ``The water supply is as critical as oil,'' said Charles Groat, a geologist and expert on the problem at the University of Texas in Austin.
   In return, ``water use requires a tremendous amount of energy,'' said Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif.

COMMENTARY: Sounds like this lede was thought of really early in the story’s development, and the writer stubbornly held onto it even though it didn’t really work. Also, “old song?” It took Google 0.22 seconds to come back with the name of the guy who wrote and sang it (Frank Sinatra). It would have sounded a lot less seat-of-the-pants with that name in the lede.

Research aims to put tongues in control of devices
Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — The tireless tongue already controls taste and speech, helps kiss and swallow and fights germs. Now scientists hope to add one more ability to the mouthy muscle, and turn it into a computer control pad.
Georgia Tech researchers believe a magnetic, tongue-powered system could transform a disabled person’s mouth into a virtual computer, teeth into a keyboard — and tongue into the key that manipulates it all.

COMMENTARY: Ew! And the “helps kiss” part is far more insight onto the writer’s love life than I, and most other readers, want.

OSU gets grant to develop ethanol from nonfood
Research scientists at Oregon State University have secured $2.4 million in grant funding from the federal government for their projects on accelerating genomic research in cellulosic biofuel feedstock crops, a possible alternative to food-based biofuels.

COMMENTARY: Huh? Not sure what this means, but let’s hear it for accelerating genomic research in cellulosic biofuel feedstock crops! Woohoo! (There’s a country song in there somewhere, don’t’cha think?)

Should businesses cut back on ads during tough times?
“Times are tough now, just getting tougher ...” – Bruce Springsteen, “Cover Me,” 1984
The stock market is down, liquidity plagues financial firms, home prices are falling and layoffs are hitting more industries. Higher gas and food costs are taking a toll on consumer spending. The Boss said it: Times are tough now.
Businesses in the Mid Willamette Valley, like businesses everywhere, face difficult decisions during tough times. But should you be cutting back on your advertising, or increasing it?

COMMENTARY: The popular-song quote at the beginning of the article ought to set a certain tone. It’s a trick that should be used very sparingly – in my entire professional life I’ve only done it once, and I actually won a journalism award for the article. Problem here is, this one appears to be there only to communicate to the reader that the author likes Bruce Springsteen.

Bush still has his loyal supporters
With a disapproval rating of 70 percent, that means 30 percent of voters like George W. Bush. We talk to a couple of people who have stuck with the president. Rex. W. Huppke in St. Paul, Minn.

COMMENTARY: OK, you got me. Technically this is not a lede; it’s a budget item. Still, there are a couple problems. First, there’s the “with a disapproval rating of 70 percent” part. It’s a clause that modifies the subject of the main sentence, which in this case is “that,” so it’s a misplaced modifier. Obviously, what the guy meant to say was “George Bush’s disapproval rating of 70 percent means 30 percent of voters like him.” Which segues nicely into the biggest problem with this – it’s a non-sequitur. It sweeps the voters who don’t care one way or another into the “like George Bush” camp. Readers are not stupid – they notice little numbers-boosting tricks like this. Remember, figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.

HEPPNER — Roadkill: It isn’t just for dinner anymore.
A new roadkill compost center near Heppner will ensure that many deer, cattle and other animals killed along Eastern Oregon highways won’t simply decompose in a ditch. Instead, it will become productive compost.

COMMENTARY: Wow, the lede on this one is soooo clever – clever as, say, silkscreening a giant picture of a Campbell’s Soup can and calling it art! Oh, wait a minute, that was thought of, and done, in 1962. And, come to think of it, so was this lede … but I’m pretty sure Andy Warhol had nothing to do with it.



... maybe a little bit:

If you thought shots belonged to bygone days, merged with other pleasant memories of homework, forced vegetable consumption and early bedtime, hold out your arm. Apparently the prickles go on for life. (Tali Arbel, in “Watercooler” from 6-2-08)

Oil brokers sex scandal may affect drilling debate
WASHINGTON (AP) — A scandal involving sex, drugs and — uh, offshore oil drilling.
It's a strange mix, and it couldn't have come at a worse time for those in Congress pressing to expand oil and gas development off America's beaches while trying to stave off an election-year rush by Democrats to impose new taxes and royalties on the oil industry. (H. Joseph Hebert, AP, BC-Interior-Oil-Scandal, 9-11-08)