Like Donkey Kong

18 Sep

I left the word “on” in the copy when I sent it through, honest.

Our film reviewer was impressed when he saw a preview of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrous and inventive reimagining of life in the court of Queen Anne. When the two rivals for the queen’s affections, Abigail and Lady Sarah, first clash, he wrote, the contest is “on like the 18th-century equivalent of Donkey Kong”. An odd expression for a broadsheet cinema critic to use, you might well think, but I’d heard it before.

It seems the revise desk hadn’t, though. “It’s on like Donkey Kong” means something like “you’re on”, “the game’s afoot”, “your challenge is accepted”. The simile is euphonious but nonsensical, referring as it does to the eponymous gorilla villain in an old Nintendo video game. Wired and the Urban Dictionary date the phrase back to Ice Cube’s song “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” (1992), although the Denver alt-weekly Westword claims that it was invented by San Francisco video arcade owner Robert Mori in the 1980s, as one of a number of game-related near-rhymes (eg “turnin’ up the stereo like Mario”) that otherwise didn’t catch on.

Since then it has been printed in USA Today, uttered in films and reality shows, and sung in country songs, according to Peter Hartlaub’s detailed history of the phrase in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Nintendo itself launched an attempt to trademark it in 2010.

Saying that the court intrigue is “like Donkey Kong”, however, means that it resembles trying to climb a series of rickety ladders for love and advancement while an irascible figure above you strews obstacles in your path. Nothing like the last days of the House of Stuart at all.

Actually, come to think of it …

 

(Parish notice: Ten Minutes Past Deadline will be off on its annual short break soon, returning in October when the leaves are falling in earnest.)

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A hundred years ago

4 Sep

What a front page this is:

© Vancouver Sun/Postmedia

There’s a New-York Times-style triple-stack headline at the top, complete with semicolons – except that, unlike the Times, the three headlines are about three separate stories, which you then have to hunt about on the page to find; it’s not so much a headline as a news briefing. As a bonus, one of the headlines is wrong: “Nikolai” (? Vladimir?) “Lenine” (? spelling?) was not “shuffled off stage” by a “woman assassin” in 1918, as students of history will know: the Sun was misled by a telegram from Russia and was unaware that he had survived.

Then there are the peculiar tense sequences in some of the headlines: “Petrograd reports Bolsheviki leader dies by assassin” (not “has died”); “French troops take Loury; captured thousand Huns” (not “capture”). Then there are the flying verbs in the standfirsts, appearing decorously after the subject has been introduced (“They have got a footing in important wooded region; still advance”). Then there’s the Daily Express-style braggadocio in the masthead: “A Great Newspaper Growing Greater”. Someone has written a list headline (“This is August bag”). Someone’s even used the word “famous” in the furniture, which wouldn’t have passed the Tribune’s revise desk without comment.

I don’t know what the count rules are for those staggered three-deck headlines, but someone seems to have broken them for the Lenin story: the first two decks are so full that it looks like the third has been set right by mistake. “…is summary of report” is a slightly anticlimactic way to end a headline that starts “Huns now admitting defeat”.

But it’s impossible not to love the rhetorical panache of the subheads (“ONWARD FROM BAPAUME”), the profusion of visual entry points, or the exhilarating jumble of the 12-story layout. 1918 was a tumultuous year, to be sure, but in the 2 September edition of the Daily Sun, published 100 years ago this week, there’s not a headline you wouldn’t want to write or a story you wouldn’t want to read.

Turn left at the crosshairs

21 Aug

Possible language-change alert:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

“At the crossroads” means to be at a turning point. “In the crosshairs” means to be someone’s target. But it looks like these metaphors may be careering down different roads towards the same poorly lit intersection.

As to which direction things will go in after the collision, it’s not clear. The sense of numbers 1, 3 and 6 appears to be “in the crosshairs” (and to be fair to Hasan Minhaj, the speaker featured in the first example, that’s clearly what he says in the video: he’s  misquoted in the headline). But 2, 4, 5 and 7 clearly suggest the meaning “at the crossroads” (indeed, in number 7, The Good Bike Co of Prineville, Oregon, are literally describing a junction).

The newest example (the first one) appeared last week on the BBC website and the oldest ones date back to 2009; those were all I could find on Google for “at the crosshairs” as a metaphor. So it’s early days yet: there’s barely a flicker on the Ngram.

But still, there’s something worryingly plausible about it as a phrase: the easily overlooked malapropism, the fact that both metaphors express, broadly speaking, a sense of being in a tricky position. On the subs’ desk we’ll do our best to keep directing traffic, of course. But how often does language change obey a stop sign?

Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).

 

Overexposed

24 Jul

Quick, over to the online picture library to get the news angle on this photo:

An undated handout picture

Right

made available by the press service

Yes

of the civic chamber of the Russian Federation

Right

on chamber’s official website

OK

shows the ‘Right To Bear Weapons’ Public Organisation’s Board Chairman Maria Butina

the … what? Right

attending a rally to demand expansion of citizens’ rights

Right

in a Russian city

Right

In Russia.

Got it.

Maria Butina, 29, was arrested in the United States on suspicion of being engaged in conspiracy against the US and acting as an unregistered Russian agent.

Ah! I thought she looked familiar.

If copy-editors seem impatient for a piece of text to get to the point, there’s a reason. Although all journalists wrestle with the problem of time – the deadline – subs are the only ones who have to confront the problem of space. Everyone understands, of course, that there are only a set number of pages per day, but, from the reporter who’s been told “aim for 900” to the designer who’s been promised “the pictures will look good big”, that awareness is theoretical. It’s only when the reporter has filed 975 words and the designer likes the pictures so much that she’s shaved the length down to 850 that the problem becomes concrete: at which point the copy desk is left to sort it out.

Captions on a single-column picture may only be three or four words long: as short as the shortest headlines. And although all the information – source, provenance, location, copyright – included in a photo agency’s filing is important for the newsroom and needs to be recorded, there’s never space to include it.

Or at least, there isn’t in print. There’s no pressure on space on the web, though, which means some news websites – such as USA Today – can pipe the whole lot through automatically for customers to read every last word. This blog has previously worried about the fact that captions have a shorter route to publication than any other part of a newspaper, but nothing’s quite as direct as this:

You would think that, if you’re going to lead off with the provider of the photo rather than the subject of it, you could skip having to write a full photo credit too. But at least someone took out “in a Russian city in Russia”.

The first sub-editors ever to appear in song

10 Jul

Clinic: IPC Sub-editors Dictate Our Youth (Domino Records, 1997)

 

This is what youth sounds like: rebellion against corporate media, cultural authority, metropolitan savants … and the people who check their spelling.

There are, as we know, a couple of sub-editors in films, but who ever thought any would feature in a pop song? And not just any sub-editors, but the copy desk at IPC – the fallen British magazine titan that used to own Melody Maker and New Musical Express when they were both at the height of their powers.

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, these were the papers in which famous writers were blooded and famous faces promoted; where punk and the New Romantics took flight and Blur fought Oasis for supremacy. You can see why a spiky young provincial band might rebel at so much glamour and hauteur being projected at them from London. But what’s so enchanting is the thought that it was the sub-editors – not Robert Elms, not Julie Burchill, not Chrissie Hynde – who were actually making this happen: making and breaking acts, gatekeeping impassively in Ray-Bans while the pop stars came and went.

It’s not as though MM or NME were particularly subs’ papers: alongside the epoch-making rock portraiture on the covers, the headlines tended to be very factual (WAKEMAN REJOINS YES) or straight quotes from the stars (“MUMFORD AND SONS: ‘OUR NEW SOUND WILL FREAK PEOPLE OUT!’). I think we all suspect that the truth was different: that in fact subs on music papers are rumpled figures, somewhat older than their colleagues, going round saying things like “You haven’t filled in the name of the band here … What? Oh, they’re called the xx?”

It’s not a very high-profile song – this blog was only put on to it by colleague Iain in the newsroom. And disappointingly, insofar as anyone can make them out, the lyrics appear to have nothing to do with journalism, but sound like a bleak portrayal of family strife, perhaps inspired by life in Clinic’s native Liverpool in the 1990s.

But still, we made it into the title. And it’s inspiring to think that an indie band once thought we were cool and aloof enough to put in a song.

You look marvellous

26 Jun

What’s she marvelling at? I’m sure Comic-Con crowds are a sight to behold, and Bettany’s sunglasses look impressively retro in the photographs. But I don’t think that’s what the Daily Mail means here. I think there’s something more ambitious going on.

“Marvel”, the verb, is frequently followed by “at”,  and there is an “at” in this headline. But it’s not right up against the verb, where you would expect it. The preposition that immediately follows the verb  is “in”, introducing a phrase that relates to the dress. So Elizabeth Olsen, I think, is not supposed to be “marvelling … at” the venue or her colleague, or indeed anything else. She’s “marvelling” in a way that celebrities featured in the Mail have previously been known to “stun”, “wow”, “dazzle”, “electrify”, “shimmer” and “amaze”.  She’s looking marvellous.

This type of construction is familiar to tabloid readers: most of the time, they seem to be what you might call “implied object” headlines, since the star in question is usually stunning, wowing or electrifying somebody else  – fans, media, the crowd – not explicitly mentioned. Such headlines reek of journalese, but are easily understood if the verbs are transitive (“electrify”, “amaze”) and clearly propose the idea of a second party. They also work with what are sometimes called “unaccusative” verbs, like “shimmer”, that describe an involuntary state of the subject.

But “marvel” is the kind of intransitive verb that usually demands either an indirect object (“they marvelled at the moon”) or an entire clause as a direct object (“they marvelled to see the moon“). It can stand on its own (“They marvelled.”), but in a sentence containing unrelated prepositional phrases, the risk of misunderstanding is high.

Obviously, as a sub-editor, I find Marvel Comics puns as hard to pass over as anyone else. But I don’t think Grammar Hulk’s going to like this one.