Newspapers' Depressing Internal Lingo

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

BoingBoing reader Marissa Frayer writes:

Perhaps print journalism foreshadowed its fledgling future long ago with its morbid jargon. Morgue. Gutter. Beat. Deadline. Dummy. Kill. Widow. Orphan. Are journalists all being strung along like dummies, beaten and downtrodden by deadlines, desperately clutching our clips and killed ideas, en route to a future in the gutter, as we abandon our readers? Or are we just headed for the morgue where the only organization left standing will be widowed Gray Lady?

I'm not entirely serious--just thought it was curious that our profession employs some awfully depressing jargon. I once spent the better part of the day in my company's morgue. It was the only place I could find silence and space to spread out and concentrate on the demands of a 280-page dummy. Needless the say the irony was not lost on me.


  1. Of course most of this is not exclusive to newspaper printing but to the entire print design industry.

  2. I once worked at a paper that tried to use “library” instead of “morgue” and the reporters, rightly, simply refused to go along.

    Call them whatever bloodless term you want to come up with, but I, for one, will continue to kill widows and orphans.

  3. I believe you mean “flagging future” rather than “fledgling future.” Does anyone know the roots of the depressing nature of newspapers’/printers’ jargon?

  4. And don’t forget the happy-happy printing terms: bleed, knock-out, burn, crop, gutter, flood, die, gang, ream, strip… good times and ink fumes.

  5. Err, you’re rather reaching for some of these. Gutter for example, is simply a channel for something, usually liquid; it’s use in English dates at least as far back as ca. 1300. So the later sense of gutter–as in “Don’t wind up living in the gutter”–the one you’re projecting negative feelings onto, isn’t really the primary semantic sense from which the printing gutter derives, nor is it particularly negative: simply a water channel running along the side of the street.

    Same with beat, which simply references a policeman’s beat, which in turn derives from the rhythmic, periodic beating of their feet as they walk their wonted rounds: nothing negative in that, surely. The OED does record a sense of beat as “A success scored against rivals by a reporter or newspaper; an item of news secured and published in advance of competitors,” but this doesn’t seem to be the one you’re referencing: I take you to mean generally one’s wonted subject as a reporter.

    Words have histories and meanings: the senses we can apply to them are quite often the latest ones, and often inaccurate as to the primary and original senses of the word. Nice try, though!

  6. In my day, we also had slugs & bullets, breaks, bugs, whips, bulldogs, and reefers. And at the end of the day, everything we did had to be justified.

  7. The one that struck me the most in journalism school was “If it bleeds, it leads.” Terrible, but true.

  8. I like this thread. I have lived with these terms my whole life (dad was a newsman, Grampa a lithographer and I have far too many years in printing to want to disclose). I have never given it much thought, but seeing them all listed together and taken as a whole, they do seem a bit dark. Then again, printing is the “black art” practiced by secretive journeymen and their apprentices the “printer’s devils”.

    One term I didn’t see mentioned, and I may be dating myself here, from the days of hot type – the hellbox – a box that sat behind the Linotype for miscast or cast-off lead slugs, held there until being remelted in the pot.

  9. Yeah, many of those are printer’s terms.

    IAMAP but off the top of my head the most virtuous press jargon I can think of is (something like) ‘priests’ and ‘friars’.

    Which, it might well be noted, refer to mistakes – particular kinds of accidental ink blotch.

  10. I’ve always been intrigued by the use of magical terms in computer science such as daemon processes and invoking commands etc but I’m a bit divided as to whether this is because of the imagery or because a lot of IT people read fantasy novels. Perhaps journalists (and/or printers) read too much hard-boiled detective fiction. Just a thought.

  11. The editor in chief of my old paper used to compare working in the newsroom to being trapped in a collapsed mine — and how we all had to wait for the internet rescue crew to save us all…


  12. Nothing is as useless as yesterday’s news and being dead, it goes to the morgue. Perfectly applied to where you store old newspapers.

  13. On one of my first nights working in a newsroom, a copy editor was overheard muttering something to the effect of, “I wish someone would die, damnint.”

    She needed one more obit to make the page fit nicely.

  14. Print Design in general has some pretty dark terms.

    Colle+Mcvoy made an online game last year, where they showed you an illustration, and you had to find all of the dark design terms in it.

    They have since taken the game offline, but you can see the illustration here: ,
    or just google “Design not for the faint of heart”

    It’s actually a pretty cool piece, they sold a limited run of prints of the illustration with all the answers on the back.

Comments are closed.