The murderous origins of modern day journalism

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Many people who work in journalism or are familiar with journalist lingo will go their entire careers without thinking of the origin of words they hear everyday. Freelancers, mastheads, stories on the spike. These conjure up images of daily routine. But they have darker, murderous origins. Before their were proper journalists, the profession lived in a pool of cut-throats, mobs and pirates.

Here are just some of the example of the murderous origins of words you hear everyday.

Freelancer

Often referring to a self-employed journalist or one who doesn’t work for a particular organization. But the term’s origins are in the period of mercenary warfare in Europe. This was a time when wandering knights, similar to wandering ronin, or masterless samurai, would offer their “free lance” as service to a local warlord. In the period of Machiavelli he discussed condottieri, hired out by Italian city-states. So freelance journalists are not so much just self-employed, as they are mercenaries, for hire to highest bidder. Their origins are essentially in the thirst for freedom that underpinned the enlightenment but also the brutal savagery of warfare.

Masthead

A masthead of a publication is a printed list of a publication’s editors and departments. It is published in a fixed place in the journal or newspaper. However “masthead” is a nautical term that references masts, the tall spur on a ship that holds the sails. In the ancient times ships might have several masts. The term “masthead”, or to “see the masthead” may have its origins also in the hunt for pirates between the 17th and 19th centuries. In those days you might see far in the distance the mast of a pirate ship and its black flag over the horizon. This was a sign of doom for weakly armed merchant ships. Masthead thus owes its origin to the era of piracy.

Deadline 

When a journalist is working to deadline or there is a deadline that means they must get a story in by that point. But what are the origins of this term? It is often thought to have originated in the Civil War era around 1864 referencing the line that one should not cross at a prison camp or be shot dead. So when someone says you are on “deadline” it means in the old sense that if you are not finished by that time, you will be executed.

Spike

In journalism to “spike” a story or a story “on the spike” refers to one that has been withheld or cancelled for various reason. The term “spike” of course refers to nails or spears. It may have origins in 16th century warfare or have a biblical reference to the spikes used to crucify people in the time of Rome. In this sense a writer whose story has been spiked, had been crucified.

Shoot the messenger

To shoot the messenger means to attack the journalist or person bringing the information, rather than to attack the content. The term has an ancient origin in warfare when runners brought messages between camps. Sometimes, such as in Sparta, or before the battle of Baghdad with the Mongols, the messengers were killed when asking for surrender. In China during the Warring States, diplomacy prohibited harming messengers. Plutarch also references it. To shoot the messenger therefore was a very real danger for people carrying messages in the old days.

Other terms

The term “anchor” in journalism, like “masthead” is nautical in origin. It may also relate to the era of piracy. The term “banner” is also a military term relating to the “banners of the enemy camp.” A “dummy” is an insulting term referring to stupidity or a court jester. Gutter journalism, obviously refers to being down in the gutter, a reference to the 18th century when gutters in cities were full of sewage and slop. “House Style,” a term referring to a style of a publication, may relate to the “big house” or a term for a prison, or may relate to the “houses” of the Wars of the Roses. Each House had its style for torture. The term “a little top” or the first sentences of a piece, can refer to taking “a little off the top” or scalping people. An “inverted pyramid” refers to the way a story is laid out, but its origins are in slavery and the labor used to produce pyramids. “Short hand” refers to a method of taking notes, but could also relate to the cutting off of hands as a punishment. Lastly, “vox pop” or “vox populi” refers to the voice of the people. However in those times of the voice of the people it often reference mobs and rabble. In the time of Caesar the “voice of the people” first encouraged the killing of Caesar and then was galvanized to hunt down his assassins.

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