John Sturgis

The tabloid art of the ‘knobbly monster’

The tabloid art of the 'knobbly monster'
(Getty images)
Text settings

Here be monsters, knobbly monsters. A ‘knobbly monster’ is tabloid newsroom slang for that tricky second reference in copy to your subject when you’ve already used the obvious or only word for it.

The term originated, so the story goes, in the late nineties or early 2000s when a quite possibly well-refreshed Sun hack was working on a sensational account of a fatal crocodile attack. By his fourth or fifth paragraph he was groping for an alternative way of describing his deadly protagonist. He settled on describing it as ‘a knobbly monster’. And a legend was born.

The golden greats from the high period of the oeuvre include:

Advent calendars: The festive time-markers

Badgers: The monochrome plague spreaders

Beavers: The furry tree-munchers

Bed: The horizontal sleeping surface

Cellulite: The dreaded dimply-thigh syndrome

Darth Vader: The heavy-breathing Jedi turncoat

Egg: The yolk-based product

Hand-grenade: The pineapple-shaped munition

Leotards: The skintight one-piece torso garments

Piers: The beloved sea-based buildings

Polar bears: The ambling shaggy white beasts

Santa Claus: The red-jacketed festive gift-bringer

Viagra: The trouser-bursting tablets

Wombles: The furry litter pickers

Woolly mammoths: The long-vanished giant hairy jumbos

Those are the hall of fame entries. But the great thing about knobbly monsters is that new examples are coined all the time, necessarily. Anyone who writes more than a few paragraphs on any finite subject can soon end up reaching for one, simply to avoid repetition.

So one even encounters them in high literature: I recently came across George Eliot in seeking a second way to describe small sweet-cakes in Mill on the Floss coming up with 'the tempting delicacy'. This really isn’t a great remove from 'tempting treat' which has become almost a cliche in the red tops to describe Greggs sausage rolls and the like.

The phenomenon has inspired a small but devoted fan club who have long delighted in spotting, sharing and laughing at knobblies. Among them are the likes of veteran tabloid newsroom toilers Paul Hudson, Graeme Fraser, Will Hagerty and Dave Morgan, recognised as among the greatest experts in the field, combing the popular papers each morning like Victorian fossil hunters traversing the crumbling Dorset cliffs.

Each new news subject can generate fresh examples. So just in the last few days during the Suez crisis, we’ve seen multiple attempts: 'the vital trade route', for example, and 'the usually busy waterway' (both Mail Online}.

They are a variety of sub-varieties of knobbly: the magnificently over-elaborate, the deliberately comical, the accidentally ridiculous, the surreal.

In longer pieces one is sometimes treated to more than one attempt: for instance the Daily Mail recently going with both 'the debonair ex-military man' and 'the former polo-playing military man' to describe James Hewitt. In his tabloid heyday he was more characteristically known as 'royal love rat' so at least his stock has risen.

The one thing that isn’t a knobbly monster, what most disappoints the enthusiastic collector, is the under-ambitious, downright drab evocation: 'Paul Newman...the actor', 'Bobby Moore...the footballer' and so on. Hopeless.

The other usage that’s sometimes, wrongly, mistaken for a knobbly goes more like this: 'Napoleon, the squat-statured megalomaniac'. Colourful prose, yes, but it’s descriptive not substitutive – and so not a knobbly.

So popular has the field become that it has inspired its own fan site: the @knobblymonsters Twitter account, dedicated to unearthing and celebrating on a daily basis new additions to the knobbly cannon.

Recent favourites celebrated here include:

Marmite: The divisive paste (Sun)

Mr Potato Head [as he was known until his recent gender-neutral rebrand]: The distinctive tuber-themed toy (Daily Telegraph)

Dominic Cummings: The ophthalmologically challenged former prime ministerial adviser (Times).

Tommy Cooper: The befezed funnyman (Sun).

The Spectator was recently lauded for a fine knobbly, Joanna Rossiter describing Henry Hoover, after his surprise cameo at the new Downing Street briefing room, as 'the friendly faced vacuum cleaner'.

I’d like nothing more than to get to the British Library and go back to 1828 and the earliest editions of The Spectator to unearth more. Who knows what Regency-era knobblies would have been coined in this august and much-loved organ. (See what I did there?)