John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Just call it a tussle

Now that I am hip-deep in newspaper journalism again, with the level rising, I am reminded of the journalistic fondness for altercation, which turned up four or five times in a short article a little while ago.
The word, Bryan Garner reminds us, used to mean a loud argument that does not quite rise to the pitch of physical violence. Think of the noise in the saloon before the first chair is broken over someone’s head. But American English has extended to include all manner of scuffling and outright fighting, particularly, Mr. Garner notes, in police jargon.

Don’t bother with the barn door; that horse has been gone a long time. Bryan Garner thinks that there is a possibility of limiting altercation to “light roughhousing,” short of the point at which somebody gets killed, but I am not optimistic.

There may, however, be a faint possibility of breaking reporters of the habit. If you can persuade them that altercation sounds pompous, or even prissy, you might just be able to lead them gently to other possibilities, no matter what the cop’s report said.

Two people got into an argument, which heated into a dispute, which grew into a quarrel, which swelled into a fight. And maybe not just a fight, but a scuffle, a set-to, a fracas, a scrap. Who know? Maybe developing into a brawl, a free-for-all, a melee. The language is not short of resources to describe disagreements. Take it out and give it a little exercise.

12 comments:

  1. A rookie reporter at a paper I worked at years ago led herself to another supposed synonym for that situation: "tryst." Enough to make you say "OK, yes, maybe some folks should be allowed to use a thesaurus."

    ReplyDelete
  2. A dust up, hurly-burly, who-struck-John, mixing it up, knocking heads, fisticuffs, opening a six pack of butt whup, kicking ass and taking names?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rhubarb, brouhaha, tohu-bohu. I guess I like the "oo" sound for altercations.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Two people got into each other's business, and an argy-bargy ensued...

    ReplyDelete
  5. "What happened in there?"

    "Sounded like a bit of a tiff."

    "They're all DEAD!"

    "Oh. Must have been more of a squabble, then."

    ReplyDelete
  6. getting up in (his) grille, taking the gloves off, taking it outside, busting a move, messing (someone) up

    ReplyDelete
  7. Patricia pressaMay 9, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    A set-to, they were toe-to-toe - I like the sounds in the mind's ear: biff, thwack, whack!.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Maybe more of a Gangsta Rap approach would work. Easy E or Biggie Smalls could have written great news articles. I have to admit, I'd probably read them daily. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  9. I like the crescendo of gravity in the last paragraph. Bravo.

    ReplyDelete