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Monday, October 29, 2012 

Sex quiz, hot shot!

There is without a shadow of a doubt an art to writing tabloid headlines.  They might make you groan, laugh or despair (hi), but you can't deny there's a certain talent to constructing a pithy, informative summation of a larger article in a highly limited space.

At times though this lack of room means they can get it terribly wrong.  The Sun was criticised a few years back for splashing on "BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP", both for the lack of understanding of mental health problems, but also because people rather like Frank Bruno.  The other problem is that despite the heyday of the tabloids being long gone, they insist on continuing to use archaic language which makes little sense when hardly any one uses it in everyday conversation.  

In tabloid parlance professors or scientists are boffins, women under 50 are girls, those sent to prison are caged, a child who commits any kind of offence, criminal or not, is a yob, and probably also evil, while a celebrity on a beach in a bikini photographed by a paparazzo is invariably showing off her curves or leaving little to the imagination.  Taste or respect also rarely enter into the equation: witness the Daily Star's front page treatment of a notorious murder case, the paper going with the legend "MY SEX WITH SALLY ANNE'S DEAD BODY", as though it was just another arrogant boast from a minor celebrity of their latest conquest.

Today's Sun front page then informs us of "GLITTER's 10-HOUR SEX QUIZ".  The paper presumably isn't implying that the police spent almost half a day asking him questions about sex in general and then awarding him points for the ones he got right, and yet that seems to be exactly what it's saying.  This isn't about taking things too literally, but that only a tabloid newspaper would ever describe a police interrogation as a "quiz", which rather underplays the seriousness of the arrest, just as only a tabloid or a satirist would use "grill" as a synonym for question, as the Sun does in the sub-heading underneath.  Most of the information required is in fact in the first heading: ex-pop star arrested.  Beyond that, all it needs to present is who and why as succinctly as possible, and arguably even the why isn't necessary when the story's been in the news for a day already.  Both the Mirror (Glitter: first of many) and the Star (Get dressed Glitter.. You're nicked!) managed it, in language easily understandable, even if the use of "nicked" by the Star comes across as more than a bit 70s.

This isn't to ignore the argument that this colourful language is all part of the charm and culture of a sub-set of the press, and that readers in general understand it perfectly well and even like it.  If though the BBC (or indeed ITN or Sky) were to suddenly decide to start asking their broadcast journalists to send in reports using similar terminology, the very same papers that abuse language in such a way would be the first to complain about dumbing down and the dreadful message being sent to our youngsters, not yet inculcated in how to like talk proper.  The point surely ought to be that it's perfectly possible to write with brevity and skill while not traducing a language which, fabulously flexible and constantly evolving as it is, can only be stretched so far before it breaks entirely.

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