Words: Robbers

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WHO SAYS the tabloids have a more restricted vocabulary than the heavies? The men who tried to rob a jeweller's shop in London last week got full coverage everywhere, but it was the pops that found all those different ways of describing them. The Sun, for example, called them robbers in its headline and first sentence, but after that they were gunmen, thugs, bandits, raiders and thieves, with the occasional robber thrown in. In Today they were not only robbers but also raiders, gunmen and crooks.

Fowler labels this technique Elegant Variation, a common vice, he says, among 'the minor novelists and the reporters'. Tabloid journalists disagree: they think of it as an art. The Daily Star's handling of it rose to masterly heights in its treatment of the story, moving from 'the armed robbers' to 'the crazed crook', 'the berserk gunman', 'the maniac', 'the raiders' and 'the bandits' before inventiveness flagged and it reverted to 'the gunmen'. Compare the Independent, which was content to make do with nine robbers, two gunmen and only one raiders, and the Daily Telegraph's bald account, whose first 12 paragraphs called them simply the men.

Elegant Variation is just about excusable, I would have thought, only if the variant carries extra information. Robbers is the exact word for those two men, robbery being defined as theft with intimidation or violence. The Sun was making nonsense of the device, and weakening its story, when it also called them thieves.

But robber retains a certain archaic glamour, which could be why the deadpan Telegraph man avoided it. We tend to forget Barabbas, remembering instead Dick Turpin and his wonderful mare. The Great Train Robbers, though thuggish enough to please the Sun, acquired semi-heroic status in the popular press. The OED quotes Bishop Stubbs, the respected constitutional historian, as declaring in 1878 that 'there is more spirit and better heart in a robber than in a thief'. Theft, unlike robbery, is a secret act; while thieves skulk, robbers are bold. They certainly make more exciting reading.