John Sturgis

The tabloid art of the ‘knobbly monster’

(Getty images)

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

The great thing about knobbly monsters is that new examples are coined all the time

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.

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