I’ve been doing this for three years now, more than enough time to tell all my newspaper stories at least twice. I know I mentioned my old boss Bernie, who would pay $10 to any reporter who could get the word “panties” into the paper, in any context. I had another editor who had a competition with friends on who could first slip “creamy white thighs” past the copy desk and into the Charlotte Observer.
There are those who find these contests childish. I say: Work for a newspaper for a few years at wages that a cocktail waitress would sneer at, and then tell me it’s so awful. We have our fun where we can find it.
But until today, even I was unaware of the Order of the Occult Hand, a journalistic secret society that’s existed for 40 years, dedicated to sneaking the phrase “It was as if an occult hand had…” into newspapers around the English-speaking world.
That’s a Chicago Tribune link, which requires registration, but it’s worth following; the story’s a hoot:
“It’s a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase,” said the unashamed Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a Pulitzer winner and at least a six-time “occult hand” user.
A Tribune pursuit has traced the phrase to at least 1965, an era in American journalism when getting a story right and first were only two-thirds of an equation that also included getting it with style–or at least with wit.
Sneaking the “occult hand” into a story not only identified a writer as stylish but also served as admission into its emerging secret association, the Order of the Occult Hand.
“I’ll smile and I’ll forget about it,” Greenberg said, having turned to the “occult hand” twice in a single week ripe with possibility in the spring of 1993, and then again in 1994, 2000, 2001 and 2004 “just to keep my standing in good order.”
(Greenberg used it most recently after being contacted for this story; then so did the Democrat-Gazette’s deputy editorial page editor.)
The hand still exists, but users of the phrase say it has been crippled by the arthritis of journalism scandals, safe now to wave only once in a while. But when it was conceived, it spread through journalism like a pox and has outlasted generations of editors and readers since.
It arrived at The New York Times in 1974.
It found The Washington Times four times from 1996 to 1998.
It appeared in the Los Angeles Times eight times between 1984 and 1999.
It slipped into The Boston Globe nines time from 1987 to 2000.
An Associated Press writer got it into the Chicago Tribune in 1996.
It arrived at The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y., in 2000, and the Bangkok Post in 2004.
It makes my creamy white thighs quiver with glee.
OK, today was…a day. Up at 3:55, off to work 50 minutes later, work work work, off, nap, shop, this, that, dinner (bruschetta, mmmm), wine, now. We’ll try to do better tomorrow.