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.
deb said on July 27, 2004 at 5:50 pm
i never heard of the occult hand clique either. wish i’d known back when i was still working for a daily newspaper…i’m sure i could’ve squeezed that reference in somewhere. my husband, who covered all kinds of grisly murder trials, could’ve done it on an annual basis. alas, what a lost opportunity…
Pam said on July 28, 2004 at 9:20 am
The Occult Hand story reminds me of a similar corporate story I could tell. Yes, you’ve heard it…but no one else here has. My former employer was holding one of those Rah Rah Yeah, Team Let’s All Bond for the Common Good of Making Money events. I’d say it was boring, but we had so much fun in just making fun of it, that it turned out to be quite the day’s diversion. At the end of the event, we were all forced to sign this “Teaming” statement. My friend Rob (whom you have met) took a dare and signed it “Meat Piston”. We didn’t know at the time but were later delighted to find out that the company had this document enlarged and framed for everyone who attended the event. Copies were hung all over the office. And so a legend was born….find the Meat Piston in this poster! Anything else I can slip it into?
Lex said on July 28, 2004 at 2:01 pm
I joined the Order of the Occult Hand early in my career. Moreover, I am, so far as I know, the only writer in the history of journalism ever to work the phrase “bowels of hell” into an A1 Sunday centerpiece lede. I think of that accomplishment as my little crumb inside a mouse hole in the Journalism Hall of Fame. When I think of it at all.
Dan McAfee said on July 29, 2004 at 2:09 pm
Teresa Heinz Kerry:
“With John Kerry as president, global climate change and other threats to the health of our planet will begin to be reversed. With John Kerry as president, the alliances that bind the community of nations and that truly make our country and the world a safer place, will be strengthened once more. It will be as if an occult hand will have raised America from the ash heap of history to once again take her place along side the the responsible states of the European Union.”
I suppose I have to use the exact eight words, tho.
deb said on July 29, 2004 at 6:35 pm
i think there should be an “order of the ash heap of history” secret society too.
aaron said on August 17, 2004 at 12:30 pm
I use to paint houses, many very high-end homes. And, while painting walls etc., out of boredom, I would paint words into the walls. I never was caught but I can assure you that subversion for subversion’s sake exists in many types of employment. By the way, I appreciate “meat piston” but I shied away from sexual content. You may want to check the walls of your house… I am certain that I am not the only one who’s done this and I, alone, did many houses.
Charlie said on February 22, 2005 at 10:53 am
A friend of mine claims to have clips to support his membership in The Order of The Occult Hand.
On a whim this morning, I Googled the phrase and found your blog. Very funny!
Found it interesting that you worked at The Charlotte Observer. I did too, right out of college. A co-worker there once observed that Dook was a fine school if your parents could afford to send you. I thought the same was true of The Observer … a nice place to work if your parents could afford to send you.