The English language is a virtual wonderland of specialized words and phrases, with almost every geographical region, socio-political aggregation and professional organization having its very own way of communicating, in written or spoken form, otherwise simple concepts like “cat” or “beer.”
America’s law enforcement community is not exempt from this practice of personalizing the English language to suit its day-to-day needs.
At the newspaper, we’ve become used to police dialect, a very specialized language partially composed of verbiage from the California Penal Code, radio communications and the occasional “Drop the weapon now!”
Law enforcement press releases routinely contain a varying amount of “cop talk” which can usually be translated into simple English by anyone who can, er, speak simple English.
Every now and then, though, a police press release arrives via FAX or e-mail that leaves us shaking our heads in bewilderment.
One such missive arrived a few weeks ago and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it meant.
Trouble started (as it so frequently does around here) as our police reporter wandered aimlessly across the newsroom muttering to herself as she read, over and over again, a press release from a regional law enforcement agency which, to protect the innocent, shall remain nameless.
The press release dealt with one of Interstate 80’s almost daily incidents of senseless road rage, but the verbiage used to describe the incident left our law enforcement reporter at a loss for words.
“Hey, whaddya think this means?” she asked, smacking me one upside the head to get my attention.”
It says ‘One party made a verbal gesture to the other.’ I don’t get it. What’s a ‘verbal gesture’ supposed to be?” she asked.
Not wanting to get swatted again, I opined that it was “probably a gesture you make with your lips as if you’re saying something you’d like to do if you could get your hands on the other party.
“Needless to say, I almost got swatted again.
“OK, genius. Here’s another one – it says the drivers were not only making ‘verbal gestures,’ but that they were involved in ‘an apparent visual altercation.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, the crumpled press release clenched in one fist.
“Ahhhhh, I think that’s where you look at each other while making verbal gestures and don’t like what you see,” I responded gamely.
My answer, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so my colleague began calling law enforcement agencies at random, hoping one of them might have a reasonable translation.
The best response she got was “Hell if I know.”
Well, I thought with a self-satisfied grin, at least people who work here at the newspaper know how to communicate without using a lot of silly buzz words. No cop talk for us, no siree. We tell it like it is.
And then one of the newspaper’s executives bustled by my desk and tossed me an invitation to a writing seminar the paper was hosting. Except it didn’t say “writing seminar” or “news workshop.” No, it said the newspaper was hosting an “Engagement & Proportionality Module.”
Like I said, no silly, er … I mean, we don’t use a lot of, ah…
Originally published April 25, 2004