Vehemently, adamantly, categorically

The esteemed Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘vehement’ as “marked by forceful energy… intensely emotional … deeply felt … forcibly expressed.” The synonyms include aggressive, assertive, dynamic, emphatic, energetic, forceful, full-blooded, muscular, resounding, strenuous, vigorous, and violent.

But in media and public relations, ‘vehement’ is used almost exclusively as part of a denial, or in opposition to something:

‘Coca-Cola says it vehemently disagrees with the coroner’s findings…’

‘Findus also vehemently denied that horsemeat in its beef lasagne…’

‘Sorenson, R-Milo, says he “vehemently” denies wrongdoing…’

You see the point. It’s worth noting that ‘adamantly’ often is used interchangeably with ‘vehemently,’ although they are not quite synonymous. The adjective adamant is defined (Merriam-Webster) as “unshakable or insistent especially in maintaining a position or opinion: unyielding.” Public denials can also be ‘categorical.’

Vehement deserves better than to be attached to politicians, athletes and defendants!

In media, denials should just stand on their own. Unless writers or editors witness an ‘intensely emotional’ or ‘forcibly expressed’ denial, don’t describe it as “vehement.”

Its overuse calls into question the simple denial.

“Hey, honey, I just read in our somehow surviving daily newspaper that the mayor denied those allegations.” Response: “Wait, did he vehemently deny them, or just deny them? Unless it was a vehement denial, I’m afraid I don’t believe the mayor!”

Person Dies … Death Toll at One!

Zambia bus crash (www.Africa.com)

Zambia bus crash (www.Africa.com)

“Death toll” is one of those media phrases that bugs me. It’s overused. The informal threshold for use of “death toll” should be 10.

Death tolls can be informative by conveying the scale of a disaster. More than 235 people were killed in the Brazil nightclub fire, for example. A bus crash in Zambia killed 54 people, while 36 died in an explosion in Mexico. It’s impersonal, but gives us an accurate snapshot of a horrible occurrence.

When four motorists die in pileup on a Georgia highway, however, that’s not a death toll. It’s four people. Often, the headline writer is to blame. The Georgia story, in fact, doesn’t use “death toll” — it’s only the headline. Again, it’s accurate but note that a “Dublin couple” died in the crash. ‘Dublin couple among 4 dead in fiery tanker wreck’ is a better headline. It’s more personal. If I mentioned to my wife that I read about a terrible crash that killed a local couple, she wouldn’t respond by saying, ‘but what was the death toll?’

In India, there was a death toll when two people died in sectarian clashes. Two! A New York Daily News story unleashed the death toll for three people killed by a former police officer in Los Angeles.

‘Soft’ needs image consultant

Unknown-1Soft is everywhere. I wrote about the use of “soft” in the past, regarding sports and gender insults. It keeps appearing. Magic Johnson tweeted that current Lakers player Pau Gasol should “stop playing soft.” A Foreign Policy blog post in defense of John Brennan, who is President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the CIA, included this headline: ‘Wait, so John Brennan is soft on terror now?’

It got me thinking (Carrie Bradshaw get out of my head), is it ever good to be soft? The answer, mostly, is “no.”

Rihanna isn’t soft, she’s “so hard.” It’s never good to be soft in sports. Politics? No way. Don’t be soft on terrorism, crime, drugs. Soft money is unregulated (i.e. bad). If you speak softly, it’s advisable to carry a big stick. Conservatives generally dislike “soft power,” and liberals generally like it, but liberals prefer “smart power.”

Conservative news website Breibart.com reported that Matt Damon’s anti-fracking drama “Promise Land” opened “soft” at the box office.  In a summary/review, it said “audiences have no patients for these types of films.” Sorry, I have a soft spot for copy editing.

Terrorists look for soft targets. “Easy” target seems like a more accurate description. Strategists prefer attacking an opponent’s soft underbelly (an affront to those of us with rock-hard abs).

Thanks to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, plus-sized soft drinks are being forced to rebrand themselves.

But it’s not all bad for soft. With the economy, a soft landing is preferred over a hard landing when governments adjust monetary policies. Of course, economics is a soft science. This LA Times op-ed explains how soft sciences get bullied.

There is hard and soft news in journalism. Hard news is the meat (and potatoes) of traditional journalism, so technically it’s preferred (in my experience, anyway) over soft news. Trend or investigative stories are typically linked to hard news, though not categorized as such. But the lines are fairly blurred these days. Check out the variety of headlines on the Huffington Post’s front page.

NRA’s words for media

The National Rifle Association doesn’t like the media. I totally get it. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, said the media is partially responsible for the recent massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

But just how much does the NRA hate the media? I analyzed LaPierre’s speech for some answers.

From the text of his speech, here are the words and phrases associated with the media:

  • Reckless, dishonest, violate, demonize, machine, copycats, offend, shock, conglomerates, untrue, misinformation, fame, stockholders, conceal, rewards, attention, propaganda, provoking;
  • Toxic mix, moral failings, dirty little truth, criminal cruelty, complicit co-conspirators, silent enablers, shocking headlines.

Now, here are the words and phrases associated with the NRA:

  • Experts, (3 times), expertise (twice), knowledge (twice), mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, dedication, resources, preeminent, willing, qualified, safety, noise, anger, advanced, credentialed, protecting;
  • Plan of action, respectfully silent, positive defense.

Besides blaming the media (and others), LaPierre called for every school in America to be protected by armed security guards or police officers. The New York Times, in an editorial, said it was “stunned” by LaPierre’s “mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant.”

President Barack Obama has called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

The NRA surely would oppose new legislation to limit access to firearms. Words that did NOT appear in LaPierre’s statement include: license, reform, improve, restrict.

The NRA chief DID mention: slasher films, video games, monsters, drug gang members, and foreign aid.

Chimps, dirt, playing, sticks

Few people connect and dissect words and phrases as carefully as comedians. Jerry Seinfeld gives us a glimpse of his joke-writing process in a new profile by the New York Times magazine.

The story and video offer terrific details. Seinfeld writes jokes on yellow legal pads and uses Bic pens, clear barrel with blue ink. “I’ve never shown anybody this stuff,” he says.

I particularly enjoyed the analysis of his Pop Tart joke. The introduction of Pop Tarts, when he was a kid, was so illuminating, it was like “chimps in the dirt, playing with sticks.”

“What makes the joke,” he said, “is you’ve got chimps, dirt, playing and sticks. That’s seven words; four of them are funny.” If a joke is too long, “you’ll shave letters off of words, you count syllables, to get it just (right) … it’s more like songwriting.”

Ninjas, N-words and lacrosse

Jovan Miller in action; top left (Photo www.charlottehounds.com)

Jovan Miller in action; top left (Photo www.charlottehounds.com)

Does President Barack Obama have time for another White House beer summit? The lacrosse community should dial the hotline to arrange a get-together.

It began with an advertising campaign that used the “other” N-word, as in Ninja. Warrior Sports, a sponsor of Major League Lacrosse, was promoting its “Dojo” sneakers with the slogan #NinjaPlease on Twitter and elsewhere.

Black players were offended (I’m sure others were, too), correctly noting that the slogan could only have been inspired by the derogatory phrase “(N-word) please.” They protested. Chazz Woodson wrote on his Facebook page that “I couldn’t sit back and NOT say anything when a campaign, from such a large and influential lacrosse company, says to the Black community — overtly or not … what you think or feel does not matter.”

Jovan Miller gave away his Warrior gear and threatened to retire from MLL. Warrior, a subsidiary of New Balance Athletic Shoe, dropped the slogan, apologized and scrubbed the offensive language from its sites. Miller ended his boycott.

So, we’re all good, right? Not exactly.

It remains puzzling why the company selected the phrase. Warrior marketing director Dave Dixon told Lacrosse Magazine that “it certainly wasn’t meant to offend anyone.” But Dixon wouldn’t answer the most important question, which was how did the ad slogan originate? He replied, “I don’t want to go into other details.”

Next, I’m surprised that the story didn’t spark more media attention. It was covered by Deadspin, BET, NBC’s Charlotte affiliate, as well as Syracuse University media and lacrosse publications. That’s according to my Google News search. With respect, though, I thought it had the makings of a national story by more mainstream press.

Wait, aren’t we living in a post-racial society? Woodson, in a recent column, described his “love/hate relationship” with the sport “because it’s put me in awkward mental and emotional positions numerous times. On three separate occasions, I’ve been called a nigger — to my face, by members of the lacrosse community. Once by an opponent. Twice by teammates.”

Use of “ni**a” is not the only issue when it comes to race relations, but it’s definitely an unresolved one. White people just shouldn’t use it, period. But others disagree. Hello Gwyneth Paltrow.

Meanwhile, Warrior should step up, with some in-house sensitivity training and perhaps (extra) outreach to underserved communities. I’m not crossing my fingers, though. The Lacrosse Magazine story noted that Warrior’s marketing tactics in the past also raised eyebrows, citing products named Penetrator, Stiffi and G-Spot.

Meanwhile, I saw on Warrior’s web site that it also sponsors the prestigious Liverpool football club (at a cost of $40 million per year). Congrats on that. You can buy Liverpool gear there. But it’s worth noting that one of the three players pictured on the site modeling the uniforms is striker Luis Suarez.

The English Football Association suspended Suarez for eight matches last season after concluding that Suarez repeatedly used a racial slur against a black opponent (Patrice Evra of Manchester United). I’m not a marketing specialist, but given the “ninja” controversy, I’d probably crop Suarez out of the photo. I wouldn’t have featured him in the first place. Just sayin.

In sports, hard truth on ‘soft’

Kevin Garnett (nba.com)

Kevin Garnett (nba.com)

The word “soft” ignites professional athletes. To be successful, they need to be “hard,” i.e. tough, aggressive. That goes for men and women. But too often, the “soft” label on male athletes is interpreted as a sign of femininity. And in the sports world, that apparently is a major insult, unfortunately.

The latest example is from my very own Boston Celtics. After a recent loss, Celtics coach Doc Rivers described his squad as “soft” — because they played passively. Women’s teams that play soft typically lose, too. Two nights later, they played “harder” (my analysis), and won.

When you play harder, you have a better chance of winning. Done.

But after the second game, Celtics star Kevin Garnett brought gender into the mix. Garnett, reflecting on his coach’s comments, said: “I don’t know any man that likes to be called soft; maybe some women.” Seconds later, Garnett correctly noted that Rivers had described the team’s effort, and that he wasn’t “coming at us as men.”

But he concluded his remarks this way: “But yeah, that was disturbing. Who likes to be called soft in anything, if you’re a man?”

I’m betting most women — not just men — wouldn’t like to be described as “soft.”

In the scheme of things, Garnett’s comments are mild. And it’s easy to envision him just repeating what he’s probably heard from his youth coaches, school friends, on the playground, etc. I doubt that’s changed much.

A more egregious example was the war of words between NFL players LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Osi Umenyiora of the NY Giants. McCoy, via Twitter, called Umenyiora “overrated” and, wait for it, “soft.”

Umenyiora responded by referring to McCoy as “she” as well as “Lady Gaga,” and a “Chihuahua.” He later tweeted “Happy Mothers Day” to McCoy. He later apologized “to any woman offended.”

Lady Gaga (nj.com)

Lady Gaga (nj.com)

Gaga, btw, is a native New Yorker and a huge Giants fan. To boot, she’s among the hardest working performers in the world. And Chihuahuas can be mean as hell. Just sayin’.

ESPN columnist Sarah Spain addressed the problem in May. She wrote: “Assigning characteristics like ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ to men and ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ to women is not only lazy, it perpetuates stereotypical gender roles and can be harmful to both boys and girls. Those qualities are personality traits, not gender traits.”

The media is partly to blame. The very same ESPN produced a nearly 5-minute-long segment on the McCoy-Umenyiora feud in September — not to examine gender issues, but rather as a preview the Eagles-Giants game a few days later. In interviews, Umenyiora restrained himself but McCoy offered that Umenyiora is “a ballerina.” The female reporter who interviewed McCoy didn’t challenge him on it (if she did, it didn’t make the final cut).

Even worse, sportscaster Erin Andrews tweeted #taketheskirtoff in response to Brooklyn Nets player Kris Humphries, who had tweeted a photo of scratches he sustained in a fight with Celtics player Rajon Rondo (the same game that prompted the ‘soft’ critique by coach Rivers). It was retweeted more than 4,000 times.

Jen Lada, a Milwaukee TV sports anchor, called out Andrews. Lada tweeted: “How does a female sportscaster tweet #taketheskirtoff & not see she’s proliferating implications that her gender is weak/inferior? Bueller?”

Oh, and read this if you think ballerinas are soft. Natalie Portman, discussing her training for “Black Swan,” said “you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain.”

And don’t forget the infamous Jim Rome-Jim Everett on-air dustup in 1994. Rome, an ESPN host, referred to NFL quarterback Jim Everett as “Chris,” as in female tennis great Chris Evret. The “slight” emerged from the perception that Everett was not tough enough on the field. The irony was that Evret the tennis player was far more successful than Everett the QB. Evret won 18 Grand Slam singles tournaments. Everett made it to one NFL Pro Bowl. Ah, details.

There’s plenty of gender studies research on this stuff. Look up “hegemonic masculinity” for a more general overview.

‘Resting comfortably,’ nothing to see here

Football coach Bobby Petrino. (AP, Gareth Patterson)

Warming up by the fireplace. Now that is comfortable. Naps in the hammock. Mmmm, comfortable. You know what doesn’t sound so comfortable? Four broken ribs and a cracked neck vertebra. Those were former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino’s injuries after crashing his motorcycle in April. Yet, the school’s athletic director described him as “resting comfortably” just a day after the crash.

Ski champion Lindsey Vonn was “resting comfortably” (her spokesman told reporters) after spending the night in the hospital with intestinal pain recently. Vonn herself wrote in a Denver Post column that “I was on morphine and Percocet, I was super drugged up and the pain was out of control.” After leaving the hospital, she was badly fatigued: “I felt like I was 100 years old.”

Cleveland Browns football player Phil Taylor had surgery to repair a pectoral muscle that he tore while bench pressing. Close your eyes and try to image your chest muscle ripping apart. Oh, snap, that freaking kills. If that happened to me, I’d stay drugged up to avoid the excruciating pain. I definitely wouldn’t be “resting comfortably.” (Team spokesman to Ohio.com)

In Australia, entertainer Bert Newton survived six hours of quadruple bypass surgery. In this story, his wife described that he was “not a pretty sight” afterward and there were “tubes everywhere.” But guess how he was resting? Yup, “comfortably,” according to the hospital’s statement.

It’s animals, too. Here’s a story about a recovering chimp! And he’s arguably the most comfortable of the examples.

Ok, you get my point. So, who is to blame? It’s both the media and the public relations folks. Image and branding are so important to celebrities, athletes, politicians and whomever else is deemed newsworthy that publicists can’t fathom the idea of announcing that their client is “in a lot of pain” or “sore as hell” or “heavily sedated.” For journalists, the “resting comfortably” lead is the convenient follow-up story, whether it’s post surgery, hospital discharge, etc. There’s just not much for journalists to go on. I’ve probably done it, myself.

You could argue that in cases such as these, the described comfort level is relative to the moment of injury. Someone could be comfortably resting relative to the horrible pain they experienced earlier. The Arkansas football coach with the bruised face and neck brace just doesn’t doesn’t bring “comfortable” to mind, though.

Alternatives? I’m just a complainer, I don’t do solutions, but I suppose you could say someone is “improving” or has “begun the recovery process” or let “resting” stand on its own.

AP discourages use of ‘homophobia’

The Associated Press (one of my former employers) has updated its Stylebook to recommend against the use of terms such as homophobia and islamophobia, arguing that phobias are medically diagnosed and shouldn’t be used in political and social contexts. James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times explains in this column. An aside, I noticed on AP’s website that you can buy a Stylebook T-shirt. Eighteen bucks. Made by Hanes, it’s “tagless for comfort and preshrunk to minimize shrinkage.” Whew. “The color is light steel, what’s known in the Stylebook as gray.” (Not ‘grey’)

‘Eurogeddon’ and other Word of the Year losers

Second place intrigues me. Who finished second in Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories? See what I mean? Maybe “winning” is overrated. Let’s shine a spotlight on the runners-up. They must prepare for the top job in case newly crowned “Word of the Year” champions are somehow disgraced in 2013.

Eurogeddon gets my vote as the best silver medalist. In a eurogeddon situation, the collapse of one of the world’s major currencies guts my 401K wreaks havoc on world markets. Heavy stuff. Makes you want to duck and cover behind your country’s firewall.

Oxford American Dictionaries selected the verb GIF as its word of 2012, noting the popularity of GIFing, in which one creates a GIF file of an image or video sequence. The shortlist of contenders included eurogeddon, Super PAC, superstorm, nomophobia (fear of being without your mobile phone; it’s good but looks and sounds too much like homophobia), and YOLO (you only live once).

The Oxford UK version chose omnishambles, which describes “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations,” explained lexicographer Fiona McPherson. Eurogeddon was also shortlisted. Another good runner-up was Grexit, to describe Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone. Also on the table was mummy porn, a new genre of literature fueled by the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Not to be confused with “mommy” porn.

Dictionary.com chose bluster, in a nod to presidential politics, the never-ending euro crisis, and extreme weather such as Hurricane Sandy. (Can you name the second-worst Atlantic hurricane of the season? Isaac). Dictionary.com admitted that 2012 “has been lexicographically quiet. There were no Arab Springs or Occupies…” It did not disclose its shortlist. Bastards.

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