I'm grateful to HuffPo's Ryan Grim and Jason Linkins for their comprehensive guide to Washington sources. The immediate response of a British political correspondent is to answer that here we have only two categories: a "Westminster source" (the reporter at the next desk) and "Westminster sources" (the barman has heard it, too). But that's cynical. In fact Parliament is full of people, some of them very senior, who wish the world to know how awful their colleagues are, and journalists who're keen to help them unburden.
The problem in Britain is an addiction to anonymity. A surprisingly large number of people who have "spokesman" in their job description refuse to ever have words attributed to them. Even quotes too anodyne to be printed by anyone with self-respect are quickly followed by "you can use that as 'a party source'".
Sometimes it's hard to escape the idea that this suits journalists as much as the spokesman. Doesn't "Labour source" sound more glamorous than "party spokesman"? And let's face it, "government source" has more shades of whispered conversations in underground garages than the mundane reality of "round robin email from a minister's adviser".
I've spent the last year collecting Journalese, the language of news, and have just published a book that offers to explain what it all means. The thorny issue of sourcing has got its own chapter, and when it came out, I was taken to task over two entries:
Sky sources • the BBC.
the BBC has learned • we've got Sky on.
First, someone from the BBC explained that "the BBC has learned" is the corporation's internal code. With so many journalists across so many outlets, this is how they tell each other that they've checked out a story in that morning's papers, and it's true.
Then, at the Lib Dem conference, someone that I can only describe as a Sky source came over. "Sky sources isn't the BBC!" he said. "Sky sources means we read it on Twitter."
So I apologise to both. No one has yet complained about the rest of these:
according to friends/pals/chums/mates/fellow inmates • according to the subject, who hasn't got any friends to say it for him. Or his publicist, the closest thing he now has to a friend.
clearest signal yet • he said the same thing as last week.
coded attack • frankly, this one would have defeated Bletchley Park. Here's what they should have said ... . Or try 'thinly-veiled'.
controversial • we like to quote him, but everyone else thinks he's bonkers.
eminent • any historian we're quoting approvingly.
expected to • the person in question's office briefed us yesterday.
heavyweight • anyone who was available to comment at short notice.
influential • any group who can get a letter printed in a national newspaper.
it appears • we can't stand it up.
it has emerged (broadcaster) • 'I am a broadcast journalist, and I've read this in a paper, and I'm damned if I'll admit it.'
it has emerged (newspaper) • we missed it but it wasn't printed in English.
it is understood • the briefing was 'on background', which is officialese for 'you didn't hear it from me, but ...'
it was reported • we missed it and the editor is cross.
it was revealed • we missed it but we're hoping the editor won't notice.
likely to • we couldn't find anyone to say it will, but come on, it's bound to, isn't it?
observers • a mysterious group, who aren't us, obviously, but for whom we can confidently speak.
pundit • he has no qualifications as such, but he sounds pretty plausible to us.
quietly announced • I missed the press release.
respected • this honestly isn't just the only person we could find.
slipped out • any announcements not accompanied by a press release.
sources close to the situation • (in business) banks plying for trade.
the comments made clear • sadly they didn't, but we'll now explain what they mean.
will anger • we spent all afternoon trying, but we couldn't find anyone who actually was angry about this. Still, someone's bound to be, if we write it hard enough and put a big headline on in.
will enrage • like will anger, but with the added factor of the story having arrived after 5pm, or two glasses of wine.
will be seen as • we're not saying this is how we see it, perish the thought. But some people out there will. Observers, for instance. It'll be seen this way by observers.
will spark outrage • we hope.
Robert Hutton's 'Romps, Tots and Boffins - The Strange Language of News' is available now