The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

Everybody into the pool – or the scrum?

A look at Washington’s vocabulary for ways of making officials available to the media – or not.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington on March 20, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP
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Controversies emanating of late from the White House afford opportunity to review our vocabulary for ways officials are made “available” to the news media – or not.

The plain-vanilla term here is briefing, as in daily press briefing, on the record, indeed, often “live on camera,” as at the US State Department. 

Briefing is from the Latin brevis, “short,” and so the idea is a “concise summary.” That didn’t prevent one journalist, as quoted by Politico, from expressing hope of getting “fulsome” answers to reporters’ questions once regular briefings resumed at State in early March after several weeks’ hiatus under the new administration. (“Full” would have been the better word.) 

When is a briefing not a briefing? When it is a gaggle. Anyone who didn’t already know gaggle got a chance to learn it Feb. 24. The meeting White House press secretary Sean Spicer held in his office that day instead of the usual daily live televised session in the White House briefing room was called a “gaggle.”

It made headlines because of who was excluded: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, BuzzFeed, Politico, The Guardian, and the BBC. 

Gaggle sounds like fun. But its etymology should give defenders of press freedom pause. The word goes back to the late 15th century, the Online Etymology Dictionary reports. It was used “with reference to both geese and women (on the notion of ‘chattering company’).” The word may come from an Old Norse word for small goose or gosling. The Oxford English Dictionary has another theory: Gaggle may derive from a Middle English verb meaning “cackle.” 

So, dear media colleagues, how do you like being compared to harmlessly cackling geese? Not great? Maybe we need less gaggle and more scrum. 

Media scrum comes to American English from the political journalism of the rugby-playing peoples.

A rugby scrum is a “play in which the forwards of each side come together in a tight formation and struggle to gain possession of the ball using their feet when it is tossed in among them,” Merriam-Webster says; or alternatively, this tight formation itself.

Macmillan’s broader sense of scrum is “a confused crowd of people pressed close together and trying to get something or speak to someone.” 

That may not sound much better than harmless cackling, but politicians often do blurt out the truth in media scrums. 

Photo spray, or more fully pool photo spray, is another term we’ve seen recently. It’s defined as a very brief “photo op.”

During a recent “photo spray” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received the visiting Ukrainian foreign minister, MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell had the effrontery to ask questions. The secretary smiled and steadfastly said not a word. Ms. Mitchell was “escorted out.”  This was the second such episode

The new president wanted a photogenic cabinet. Secretary Tillerson’s actions suggest we have a top diplomat who knows how to be seen and not heard.