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Friday, December 5, 2014

Great Shouts, Starting with "Stop the Presses!"

At a newspaper where I once worked, I had the occasion to run into the pressroom and yell “Stop the presses!” The effect was immediate. Ink-smudged men, who before had barely grunted an acknowledgment of my existence as night editor, scrambled. Buttons were pushed. The roaring noise of the press subsided. The run of papers through the Goss machinery had just begun so we did not lose too much money by pulling one of the plates and to correct a gross error (mine) in a headline that would have made us the laughing stock of the town.
Ever since, I have ruminated on the event, remembering how the phrase “Stop the presses!” had by itself bellowed with magnificent authority from my own terrified lungs. More remarkably, the words galvanized pressmen into immediate requisite action. I realized they reacted not because of any authority I possessed, though in editorial control, but rather the authority of the shout itself. There was no doubt about it. “Stop the presses!” was a Great Shout. I had discovered a new linguistic category.
Great Shouts share will all shouts a right-now urgency about them. But regular shouts are mere visceral reactions. “Ouch!” “Hey!” “Don’t!” or “Big dummy!” and “Yo momma!” are shouts that can be yelled with effect in certain situations, but a Great Shout is a specific phrase voiced in the particular situation that demands it be shouted so that the moment is described and requisite reaction understood. “Stop the presses!”
“Fire in the hole!” is perhaps the greatest of the Great Shouts. It relates the essence of the situation and leaves it to you to assess that situation and decide within the next second or three, how you should react.
“Timberrr!” is likewise a Great Shout. If you are in the woods and hear it with enough volume to know t may affect your actions in the next few seconds, you will cast your glance rapidly around you. “Timberrr!” shows the economy with words Great Shouts possess. A kind of genius, really. It’s pretty easy to imagine how “Stop the presses!” originated. Two editors probably looked at each other and said, with shock showing in their eyes, “My God, Fred, we’ve got to stop the presses.” They probably marched back to the press room, found the foreman, and -- with presses roaring n the background -- each issue coming off adding to their sweat -- said to that foreman bending his ear close to understand what they were saying, “Bob, we’ve got to stop the presses.” Bob probably said, “What?” At which point one or both of the editors yelled at the top of their lungs, “Stop the presses!”
How did “Timberrr!” arise? “Tree about to fall!” must have died an early death. “Falling tree!” is beneath the dignity of any lumberjack. Some spark of insight realized that the act of cutting the tree, its falling to earth, was making it into timber and so the new Great Shout rang forth in the forests.
“Timberrr!” is in the warning category of Great Shouts. I don’t think “Heads up!” is a Great Shout, although when yelled by a gym teacher will bring attention from his young charges. War, however, has given us some forceful warning Great Shouts. “Hit the deck!” for example. But since economy of words is the hallmark of a Great Shout, “Incoming!” from the Vietnam War is a beaut. It really says it all. You can’t beat “Dive! Dive!” when accompanied by klaxons for romance, although “Bogey at three o’clock!” isn’t bad. Perhaps the oldest Great Shout from war is simply “Charge!” And it will still give order and direction to a gang of boys in a snowball fight. “Hey Rube!” accomplished the same thing for circus workers.
I can’t think of any Great Shouts from the entire arena of sports, which is filled with yelling. But the yells are visceral, reactions of the diaphragm to actions on the field. Baseball has many great silences, for example when you wait to see if a ball will make it out of the park. “Going! Going! Gone!” may be an apt descriptive shout, but not a Great Shout. Linebackers do have “Draw! Draw!” and “Pass! Pass!” they shout at each other, but those lack pungency of situation.
By pungency of situation I mean, for example, if you were on board a ship and heard “Man overboard!” you would help pass the cry forward to the helm. “Thar she blows!” culminated days and weeks of searching. Then after months on the water, “Land ho!” must have been a beautiful Great Shout to hear. Great Shouts cut through the essence of communication.
Yes, the publisher the next day had some of his shouts for me for having to stop the presses, none of which I judged to be great.

I concentrate more on fiction these days. Here's that smorgasbord.

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