If you ever find yourself at lunch with a group of journalists – and if you do, you have my sympathies, because you’re the one who is going to be stuck with the bill – you’ll fit in with them more easily if you know a little of their professional lingo.
For instance, when a reporter writes a story that lays out events in step-by-step, chronological fashion, they call the resulting article a “tick tock” piece.
“Gimme the tick tock,” American reporters will sometimes say when they want the first-this-happened, then-that-happened sequence of events. The phrase is derived, I suppose, from the sound of the minutes ticking by on a clock and it’s one of those vivid and instantly understandable phrases that certain industries are filled with.
Even serious industries like the military have their own specific phrases. A friend of mine who served multiple stints in the United States Marines would describe helicopter training as “turning money into noise”.
I’ve stolen that phrase many times since I first heard it. It’s come in handy on movie sets.
Some insider lingo is designed to animate and colour something basic – that’s what “tick tock” does. It makes a simple and prosaic kind of newspaper article sound snappy and interesting. We screenwriters often use the phrase “hang a lantern on it” when we’re struggling with a plot contrivance or coincidence so unrealistic that the only way to make it believable is to have one of the characters remark on it in dialogue.
“What are the odds of meeting you here?” one character might say to another after an implausible – and utterly artificial – meeting. The theory is, if you acknowledge it – even call attention to it – by “hanging a lantern” on it, then you somehow make the cheap trick seem a little less objectionable.
The catchphrases of the business world are a lot more drab. A few years ago, people started talking about certain business sectors as “spaces”. Companies were said to be “entering the online space”. Fast-food restaurants were investing in the “healthy food option space”. Every executive worth his outsize bonus was suddenly talking about this “space” or that “space”.
It sounded odd, at least to me, when some television networks announced that they were investing heavily in the “drama space”, – meaning, I guess, that they were going to be making more television dramas. But the phrase “drama space” just made me think of a room somewhere with padded walls where people could behave in overly dramatic ways. Feeling the need to be really dramatic? Then head on down to our “dramatic space”.
Now, of course, most television networks are making big moves into web-based programmes, or “the streaming space”. That makes me think of a room somewhere, too, but it’s a much more unpleasant image.
Many years ago, when Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg was leaving that studio to start up DreamWorks, he said something in an interview that was philosophical and deep. The transition from one job to the next had been tumultuous – there were bitter words exchanged between him and his boss – but what he said in the article was: “At the end of the day, what do you want your life to be about?”
“At the end of the day” was not, at that time, a phrase people used a lot. But when a powerful person in Hollywood uses new-sounding dialogue in public, pretty soon everyone is using it. A week or so after the article appeared, people were saying “at the end of the day” pretty much hourly.
A year or so ago, for instance, once I had learnt the phrase “tick tock”, I used it in a script meeting. I wanted the characters to really lay out the consequences of whatever it was they were trying to avoid – this is what was once popularly called “raising the stakes” – and I said: “I just think we need to hear the tick tock of what they’re afraid of.”
That was two years ago. Yesterday, in a totally unconnected conversation with a completely separate cast of characters, someone told me that she was rewriting a scene to put in more “tick tock”.
I’m not saying I introduced the phrase into the bubble, but, well, who knows? In my case, it took two years for the phrase to come around again. In Jeffrey Katzenberg’s case, it was a couple of weeks. But now that I’ve introduced it to the newspaper space, who knows?
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl