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Spruiking to the world

11 Jun

I know English-language news stories suffer from dialect problems when read outside their home country. I know that possibly the only solution for our rapidly globalising anglophone news sites is to “honour the author’s voice”* and hope overseas readers understand. And I know we’ve talked about this before. But strewth:

For those needing footnotes:

spruik (v) Australian archaic, slang to speak in public (used esp of a showman or salesman); to promote or publicise

doco (n) Australian informal short for documentary

And David Speers is a political journalist currently moving from Sky News to the less remunerative Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a move of some significance in Australian media circles since he “is famously paid a motza by Sky” (motza (n) also motsa, motser Australian informal a large sum of money, especially a gambling win).

Of course, this is an example of a piece produced by a global news organisation, in this case the Guardian, locally in Sydney for the local market. It has to be in Australian English or it would sound alien to its target audience. Even if you are outside Australia, however, you may well encounter it: it appears on the Guardian’s aggregator page for commentary, which (like its top 10 list) doesn’t differentiate between countries of origin. And although it may be possible to control who sees such stories using users’ geolocation data, no one yet – not the Mail or the Guardian, and often not the BBC – seems to be trying very hard to make that happen.

So, given that we may be encountering more antipodean English in the future, may I recommend a good reference source for unfamiliar phrases? The Australian National University’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms is full of helpful explanations if you should come across googs, nasho, pokies, firies** or somebody “shooting through like a Bondi tram”*** in your morning news report. I’m expecting to find it very helpful. Although you may not get to the point of having tickets on yourself, it should help you look less like a stunned mullet when the next barbecue stopper comes along.****

 

* This approach is followed punctiliously at the Tribune. I recently came across a piece that referred to Madonna’s notorious 1991 tour documentary as Madonna: Truth Or Dare. That was its title in the US, but in Britain and many other countries it was called In Bed With Madonna. I changed it for print, because the newspaper’s market is deemed to be the UK only. But what about the web, which is read globally? After a discussion, it was decided that, even though the film is American and Truth Or Dare is arguably its original title, because the article had been originated by the London culture desk, the author’s voice would prevail and In Bed With Madonna would win. Any article on the same subject written in the US, however, and reaching the same audience, would stick with the American title.

** Googs: eggs. Nasho: national military service. Pokies: slot machines, which in Australia often have a five-reel playing-card format that in effect deals you a poker hand. Firies: firefighters.

*** Departing in a hurry, in the manner of the now-defunct express tram to Bondi Beach, which would run non-stop (or “shoot through”) for part of its journey.

**** Having tickets on yourself: being full of oneself, feeling superior (origin unclear). Looking like a stunned mullet: being visibly disconcerted. Barbecue stopper: breaking news of such interest that it would even interrupt conversation at a barbecue. 

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Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?

 

*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc

Cootamundra to the world

20 Sep

BONUS UPDATE: The very day after we were discussing Rebel Wilson and the Australian dollar exchange rate, this appears on the UK homepage of the Daily Mail! Man from Cootamundra (where?) discovers crashed ute (what?) on the Olympic Highway (where?) and, with great courage, pulls him to safety. Now he’s all over the web front page of Britain’s best-selling mid-market tabloid without a hint to international readers about where the drama took place (which is, of course, Australia).

If you need footnotes: Cootamundra is a town of about 5,500 in New South Wales; the Olympic Highway is a country road in the southern part of the state, so named because it formed part of the route of the torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics; and a ute, that most distinctively Australian of vehicles, is a light pickup truck based on a saloon car chassis (it’s short for “utility”). None of these explanations make it into the front-page standfirst for British readers, although on the article page itself, there is at least a description of Mr van Baast as an “Aussie hero” in the display type.

In fact, the story is written from such a defiantly local angle that one suspects even readers in other parts of Australia might be nonplussed: it’s not clear how familiar readers in Perth might be with the name of an inland rural highway through another state, even though viewers of Prime 7 News Wagga Wagga (which provided the dramatic pictures) would know at once.

But it also underlines the other emerging trend in the globalising digital news agenda: that, from celebrity photoshoots to fiery rescues, a story’s a story, wherever you are in the anglosphere.

Dollar general

19 Sep

This is a lot of money, but perhaps not quite as much as it seems.

Both the Mail and the Guardian are big in Australia, and so both were all over the story of Rebel Wilson’s bumper defamation victory. But neither of them seems to have cleared up one area of potential confusion for their international readerships. Four and a half million dollars here, of course, means four and a half million Australian dollars: but that’s not mentioned anywhere in the headlines or the copy, and in neither story is any sterling or US equivalent offered for comparison.

It’s not a huge point (the conversion rate is only A$1 – US$0.80), but it does reveal something about life on the digital frontier. As we have discussed before, the objective of the expanding anglophone media groups – like the Guardian and the Mail – is not just to do reporting from new territories, but to provide news for those territories. The point is not just to have a foreign bureau perpetually on the phone to London, but to have a semi-autonomous operation that in effect thinks of Australasian news (or US news) as domestic news. This means that there will often be stories deliberately commissioned about local matters for entirely local consumption – but with the crucial difference that they will be launched, willy-nilly, onto websites with global reach and presence.

We came across one such story a couple of years ago, where a report on failed Australian unemployment policies found its way onto the most-read stories list on every Guardian national homepage. Because it was written for a domestic audience, it understandably failed to mention it was talking about Australia anywhere in the headline, causing temporary bafflement among readers who couldn’t understand why UK joblessness had taken such a sudden turn for the worse.

That, of course, was an accident: as regular reader Jeff has previously observed, it’s the kind of thing that can be controlled by making the content management system more geo-sensitive, filtering the most-read stories list by location, and so on. Even for international news groups, local stories can be kept quite local if you want them to be.

But that doesn’t quite cover the issue with this story, because Rebel Wilson is more than just a figure of local interest. This is not a story that’s leaked across a CMS by accident: it’s news that’s wanted on every homepage in the organisation. Of course, Wilson is an Australian woman suing an Australian magazine in an Australian court. But she is also a globally recognised comedian whose career is followed all across the world. She lives in America, works in Hollywood and gets paid in US dollars: as a trans-national figure herself, there is legitimate room for doubt about which currency her settlement might be denominated in.

The great advantage of having newsrooms on three continents is that you are ideally placed to report on stories like these: the California bureau can cover the Hollywood angle, and the Australian bureau can put a correspondent in the courtroom, while your rivals have to rely on agency copy. The concomitant problem is that if you then produce your story in an Australian voice for an Australian audience, you risk confusing two-thirds of your global readers, all of whom expect you to be reporting in local terms to them too.

The upshot is that, if you don’t watch out, the most determinedly global news organisations in the world can start sounding just like the most parochial ones. All politics may be local, but not all news is.

Will likely stoush Thursday

10 Jan

This week on Words That Look to Have a Bright Future in Global Anglophone News:

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“Stoush” (AUSTRALIAN/NZ informal, verb hit; fight with; noun a brawl or other fight) is a new one on me, but not on the Tribune: our Sydney newsroom has used it hundreds of times since opening four years ago. It’s another example, remarked upon before in this blog, of how newspapers with multiple newsrooms end up speaking multiple dialects of English under the same masthead: a phenomenon that is proving difficult for style guides to control.

This is all, of course, completely unintentional: the globalisation of newsroom English happens not through any assertion of national identity, but because, in their country of origin, striking words sound entirely unremarkable. Colourful local expressions are not colourful in their own environment; it takes a stranger – such as a voracious news consumer from another country – to remark on their peculiarity.

Here in London, for example, it is surprising to learn that “gone missing”, a phrase any UK journalist would use without thinking, is a pungent and unfamiliar Britishism to American ears. Equally, I am sure, the Tribune’s New York office little suspects that standard Stateside journalese like this

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sounds as alien to Britons as “stoush” does to everyone in the northern hemisphere.

Except of course that, given the exposure that internet news affords, who knows what the mysterious action of language change might make familiar? Although the employment of days of the week as adjectives, and the term “ouster” to mean “dismissal”, still sound very foreign to British ears, the use of “likely” where a British-English speaker would only say “probably” seems to be becoming distinctly more common.

The Collins Dictionary still takes a disapproving line on this for its core audience:

Likely as an adverb is preceded by another, intensifying adverb, as in “it will very likely rain” or “it will most likely rain”. Its use without an intensifier, as in “it will likely rain” is regarded as unacceptable by most users of British English, though it is common in colloquial US English.

But it seems that events may be outpacing that advice. The phrase appears hundreds of times, perhaps predictably, on the Daily Mail’s multinational home page, and even the briefest of Google searches for “will likely” on BBC News reveals well over a dozen uses of it in the organisation’s own voice over the last two years, including entirely domestic stories on constituency boundaries in Islington and the future of the BBC licence fee.

It has even started appearing, remarkably, in the business pages of the Daily Telegraph, perhaps subconsciously influenced by the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has begun incorporating it into his briefings.

There is, by contrast, not a single instance of “ouster” in BBC news output so far. But, intriguingly, there are two for “stoush” already.