The notorious ‘narrative’

TV news channel viewers who, if lucky to hear something from amidst the din of the tube, would not have missed the subtle shift in the debates in the last few years. I am not referring to the nature of the debate, which remains the same: Noisy and incomprehensible. What I am alluding to is the new language and lexicon by which it has, well, remained the same: Noisy and incomprehensible.

With the number of channels and Anchors zooming and the parade of primetime panelists and pundits turning endless, there is a scramble, nay, a rat race for fresh words, phrases and sentences. Points and perspectives can easily be put to the shade by some pompous terminology by someone screaming from an adjacent box from among any of the dozen plus boxes, all screaming.

There was a time when words and phrases like ‘back-burner’, ‘law will take its own course’, etc., were popular and remained in vogue for long. Gone are such glory days of the oft-spoken words. Today’s men and women of small screen are facing an uphill task. News and problems are as rife now as in the past, but competition is too pressing. Also, this is a poll year, and new idioms for familiar issues have to be invented if the viewer has to be prevented from reaching for the remote. To put it in the words of ordinary mortals, TV journos have to necessarily find new bottles for the old wine.

After all, there are only 26 letters and so many combinations and permutations that form a legitimate word. And even less that can be applied in a raging debate. For a pathetic panelist, the residue is so paltry, because s/he gets only the leftovers of the overzealous Anchors who gobble up the prime of the primetime. Still the expert has to say something extra because of being an expert or declared as one. And then the same person may have to go to another channel and say something extra over the earlier extra, which again is only after what is left by that Anchor – ooops, the point is, where are the words, stupid?

Of late, some have cropped up and gained currency. A word of caution though about the latest words: they are apt to become cliches the moment they are uttered because of the viral and infectious TV climes. Also, there is no guarantee that a fancy word will remain as fashionable even a few episodes later. There is the chance that many will go out of stock or memory fast.

That said, here are a few. The nation would have known by now that ‘the nation wants to know’ refrain by the loud and all-knowing anchor, who cuts loose at the drop of a word by anyone else on his chosen panel, is no longer current. But there are others that have survived. For instance, phrases like ‘never ever’, ‘on the other side’, ‘fair enough’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘be that as it may’ and ‘viewers will decide’ are favourites of parties of all parts on a panel discussion.

Typically, in varying degrees of verbal dictatorship, the Anchor is the most visible and voluble. It is not uncommon to hear these words from him/her: ‘Don’t try to flatter me to win your argument. ‘Words like audacity, outrageous, etc., many innuendos and even expletives and the right to cast aspersions on all and sundry are perfectly fine for Anchors while they are taboo for the panelists who are promptly cut off or muted if the prompter from an inside room orders so. But an Anchor’s unkindest cut is this: ‘Let me come in here’. When is s/he out in the first place?

‘National discourse’ is a sort of fad of late. Under it anything goes. In fact, most discussions start with the invocation of the phrase ‘national discourse’ which, needless to say, is decided not by the nation but by the garbled, ceaseless cacophony of cross-talk emanating from the profound intellectuals of the idiot box.

But, for the me, two words top the charts: optics and narrative. Now, this optics has nothing to do with ophthalmology or about sight but rather with illusions. It is supposed to describe a ‘collective show’ often to grab attention and eyeballs. Predictably, this opaque term has become popular mainly after some high-brow actors and candlelight activists started to figure in, well, public discourse.

But my pick will be ‘narrative’. I am still grappling with what exactly it could mean beyond what the dictionary says: a simple account or a story of something. Obviously, some smart public personalities have discovered some very lofty meaning that have eluded our semi-literate minds. Even optics should be some form of visual narrative, who knows? So, watch out for the increasing use (abuse) of ‘narrative’ which in my view is poised to become the last word in TV journalism for sometime.

But while these word hunters are searching the lingo jungle and scorching the screens with their freshly-minted coinages, I may as well end my narrative here. Having lost all just-born jargons to TV, I must rush to find some fresh ones for the print, my humble habitat.
e-mail the writer at

Jawahar T R