What’s a goat-choker? Weird news terms 101

GRIP-AND-GRIN (n.) A photograph of no inherent interest in which a notable and an obscure person shake hands at an occasion of supposed significance.

Today I was CQing (fact-checking) a story I wrote…and I suddenly wondered what the heck CQ stood for.

It took some pretty ruthless Googling to find the history of this term, universally known in newsrooms as the short way to say “I’ve confirmed this name/date/fact is correct.” Turns out it’s the acronym for the Latin term “cadit quaestio,” literally translated “the question falls.”

But according to a commenter on an online journalists’ forum, “cq” is also an abbreviation for “correct” that Associated Press telegraph operator Walter P. Phillips created before the turn of the 20th century. It isn’t clear whether he created it out of thin air or knew about the Latin term.

Other forum commenters thought the acronym might stand for “correct as quoted,” “can’t question” or, my personal favorite, “correct but queer.”

In other words, everyone’s got a theory, but no one’s got a real, honest, CQed answer. You’d think in a profession such as journalism, where everyone feels compelled to look things up and actually enjoys doing in-depth research, we would know more about this ubiquitous acronym’s origins.

Funny thing is, the newspaper world is full of such terms. A suffocatingly long article whose purpose is to satisfy a reporter’s vanity and win the newspaper prestigious awards rather than to gratify readers is called a “goat-choker.” Why? Nobody knows. A “slug” is a short, one- or two-word temporary title we have for story files as they go through the editing process. While there are lots of theories on the origin of this word–some say it comes from the Middle English “slugge,” which turned into the word “sluggard,” describing a lazy person–none of the theories explain why we use the term in journalism.

It took the reporter four paragraphs to get to the point: “Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. Monday.” This newspaper is still famous for its buried leads.

Granted, most journalism terms are easily explained. Copy editors, for example, were once called “rim editors” because they sat at a horseshoe-shaped table, at the head of which was the copy chief or “slot editor.” The slot sat in such a position that he could easily hand out to-be-edited stories to everyone at the table. A “budget” meeting, though it has nothing to do with money, is aptly named because it’s a meeting in which editors decide how and with which stories they’ll fill the space in tomorrow’s paper. And editors accuse reporters of “burying a lead” when their introductory paragraphs take too long to reach the story’s thesis.

Still more terms need no explanation at all: “lead” (intro to a story), “flag” (the paper’s logo at the top of page A1) and “jump” (an instruction to follow a front-page story to an inside page) are a few of these.

My favorite phrases are the old-fashioned terms we’ve adapted for use in the 21st century. Only editors in budget meetings use the term “above the fold” to describe the stories, headlines and photos readers will see the moment they pick up a print newspaper. But nearly everyone here at The Times tosses around that phrase to describe the headlines online and mobile readers can see without using the scroll-down function on their browsers. Copy editors also use the phrase “off the floor” to describe a page or section that is officially ready for print, even though pages are never “on the floor” to begin with these days. And some of the small papers where I’ve interned use the word “pasteup” to describe the process of designing the news pages before they’re printed, even though the process no longer involves actual paste.

The question is, is all this strange lingo creating a wall between newspapers and their readers? I can hardly talk about my day at work around non-journalists without getting some head scratches, but I don’t think that’s unique to journalism. My roommate’s employer, the U.S. Coast Guard, might be the worst offender when it comes to confusing workplace terms; while the newspaper language is made up of real words or at least abbreviations of words, the military’s is nothing more than a series of acronyms, something we journalists disdainfully call “alphabet soup.” My dad speaks programming language at work, using terms such as “Delphi” and “JBuilder” offhandedly as if they’re common. My uncle, a retired ER doctor, had to memorize definitions of phrases such as “pulmonary thromboembolism” in medical school.

And most of the country speaks in corporate-ese at work, spending their days discussing “synergy,” looking for “accelerated emergence of high maturity behaviors” and “utilizing” just about everything.

So even though my line of work comes with a huge handful of obscure phrases with unknown origins, I’d say we’ve done comparatively well in simplifying things. But I can’t CQ that.

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2 thoughts on “What’s a goat-choker? Weird news terms 101

  1. Bridget McDonald says:

    Nice article.
    A note on this: “And some of the small papers where I’ve interned use the word “pasteup” to describe the process of designing the news pages before they’re printed, even though the process no longer involves actual paste.”
    When I started out (19820 we used wax to make the galleys stick to the boards. But we called it paste up. Maybe they used paste before wax?

  2. Ben Sargent says:

    “Goat-choker” refers to the alleged diet of goats that is supposed to include cans, trash and presumably, old newspapers. A story that occupied many columns or even pages of copy would generate enough newsprint to choke the goat who tried to eat it.
    And “slug” for a line identifying a story is from the hot-type era when the Linotype operator would set one line (or “slug”) of type with that identifying label so that a printer looking at the typeset story in a galley could know which story it was.

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