By Scott Ross
It is, I suppose, a measure of how out of step I am with my time that I care, not only about how I express myself, but how others speak, and write, as well. “Curmudgeon” comes to mind as an epithet for the likes of me. Well, call me sorehead, call me crank. Call me crusty if you really must. Call me a malcontent, a grammar-Nazi, or even (should you be of a whimsical turn of mind) murmurer or crosspatch. I got through 9th grade. I’ve been called worse. Teen-talk, as it’s called, with its accent on digital media acronyms, inarticulate and pointless interjections (“like”) and overuse of words like “awesome,” is sometimes annoying, but one can’t get overly exercised about it. (I was a teenager once.) However, each time I read or hear an adult man or woman who was once a good speaker, and a good writer, adopt the trendy, teen-speak “way” for “much” or “far” something in me dies a little.*
Slang is not the issue. The adoption of the demotic and the colloquial do not, in themselves, cause me despair; language that does not move and change and grow with those who speak it soon becomes language that is fustian, and dead. What I’m nattering on about are those words that infect the stream of meaningful discourse. Saying, or worse, writing, “impact” as a verb* so often that it becomes accepted speech does not clarify. It obfuscates. Using “proactive” when what you really mean is to behave in a manner that anticipates problems and avoids them before they occur, is sheer linguistic barbarism. The English-speaking world managed just fine being active (or even “reactive”) for hundreds of years and wasn’t aware that it needed grammatical correction for a lack that never existed.
Most of the bad badinage that afflicts rational discourse has arisen from, as nearly as I can determine, three principal sources, none of which I would trust with fixing a streetlamp, much less altering the language: Business, government, and that curiously hyper-polite matrix I think of as “OfficerSpeak”: The military and its kissing-cousin, what we still laughingly refer to as “law enforcement.”
From the world of business, which is of course ever-mindful of what is rightest, newest, coolest and best, we get such hideous neologisms as the aforementioned “proactive” and the rending of a perfectly inoffensive little noun like “impact.” Business is, in bloating the coffers of the language, a busy little beaver indeed and so has provided us with nifty hack-words and phrases like “diversity,” “empowerment,” “core values,” “joined-up thinking” (this, from people whose cerebra are as creaseless as a baby’s bottom), “incentivize,” “signage,” “paradigm-shift,” “strategize” “think outside the box,” and, that all-time favorite of Michael Eisner (whisper his name), “synergy.” Sadly, these utterly meaningless words and phrases have, with the speed of sound itself, filtered into every conceivable nook and linguistic cranny of daily life. Well, as Mel Brooks once noted in one of his ad-libbed colloquies with Carl Reiner, “Advertising is a lot stronger than life.”
Government, which has proven itself over the millennia and in every guise about as trustworthy as ants before an open jar of honey, tosses the language about like barrels of pork to a professional lobbyist. And with as much integrity. I well remember, even from the wobbly age of 12 or 13, the assault of jargon and flatulent verbiage that emerged from the Watergate scandal, as slimy as Nixon but with even greater sticking power. Of “in terms of,” a then-nascent hack-phrase whose use is now epidemic, Robert Klein observed at the time: “That’s a phrase I heard about three times in my life before Watergate.” With the passage of time, it’s gotten even worse: “Enhanced interrogation techniques” when what we mean (and should riot over our government’s use of) is “torture.” And should you wish to spend billions of our treasure and ensure the continued health and, as our betters would say, “viability” of anything, just declare war on it. Whatever “it” is (poverty, drug abuse, famine, terrorism) rest assured it will never be heard from again.
The armed forces, at least in America, are well known for their determination to break down the individual. Each branch then says it is in the business of building that young person up again… on its own terms. And with its own terms. Thus the instantly knowable becomes, with time and effort, euphemized and re-jiggered beyond all sane codification: As George Carlin famously pointed out, the World War I term “shell-shock,” a blunt word to match a man-made, hideous condition, became by the next War to End Wars, “battle fatigue.” Now, of course, it’s not a phrase or even a word; it’s an acronym. PTSD sounds ever so much less threatening than shell-shock, doesn’t it? Guns are not ‘weapons,” they’re “assets.” The accurate application of ordinance meant to blow human beings into their constituent parts is “clean” bombing. Saber-rattling might is “coercive potential.” The hideously maimed, both physically and psychologically, need no longer be crippled, handicapped or driven to the brink of madness by their experience as cannon-fodder. Now they hobble about, or drool with pride, having achieved the exalted status of “wounded warriors.” Worst, and most blood-chilling, the loss of life and limb by the innocent at the hands — or, more accurately, the thumbs and forefingers — of our “freedom fighters” is now mere “collateral damage.” Oops. My bad, as they say. All too often.
When freedom fighters (those, in any event, who do not become wounded warriors) enter civilian life, they traditionally gravitate to two fields: Aviation, if they’re Air Force personnel of proven abilities, or the police, if they’re… well… discretion forbids. Here they can take the weirdly prissy articles of overly elaborate verbal protocol they’ve learned as soldiers and apply them to everyday life. How often have we watched, and listened, as some martinet cop on the 11.00 news goes through his or her (usually his) protracted, over-articulated spiel when asked about the commission of a crime? The officer never merely arrests when he can “apprehend.” Accused criminals are “individuals” or “perpetrators.” And neither cop nor felon need ever flee from or merely and humbly get out of an automobile; they “disengage from their vehicles.” Obfuscation of this type, and in this form, is deadening. Or perhaps that’s the intention? The more emotionally robotized and phlegmatic the cop — excuse me, the Law Enforcement Official — the more fascistic he seems, and the more to be feared. And obeyed.
The many and various media, of course, take their cues from all of the above, particularly when dealing with popular culture. It is now axiomatic that any book, film, play or piece of sausage-factory pop-music that has managed to eke out a year or two of notoriety is a “classic.” Any individual of whatever stripe whose career has lasted more than a decade is instantly granted the exalted sobriquet “legendary.” Music no longer functions as a stimulant, an anodyne or possesses a meaning of its own; it is “the soundtrack to [fill in the blank.“]
(“Soundtrack” carries its own linguistic burdens; a Broadway cast recording is still far too often referred to by ignoramuses as a “Broadway soundtrack.” Then again these days, with the theatre experience itself more and more resembling a rock concert in style, form, presentation and content, perhaps that is as it should be.)
As for the rest of us (those in any case who are not ourselves legends) we no longer have lives. We have life-styles. We do not read (well, who does?), listen to, watch, or in any meaningful fashion absorb the fruits of culture, high, low or middle-brow. We “consume” it. And, one presumes, in a throw-away society, consign it to the W.C. of civilization once we’ve finished digesting it.
Well, I say it’s bullshit, and I say the hell with it.
As William Strunk, Jr. noted in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise.” It’s a phrase that has become something of a mantra with me over the years, and which I now apply equally to speaking. Strunk goes on, a few phrases later: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” [Emphasis mine.]
Words are not empty things. They convey meaning, and, especially in this so-called Communication Age, aid immeasurably in one human being reaching another. But if the words we employ cloak meaning, or cheapen it, or obfuscate and obtrude where they should clarify and enlighten, we are as one with those E.Y. Harburg whimsically termed “the rabble at the Tower of Babal,” talking over, under and around each other without making anything like a meaningful, or even temporary, connection.
And don’t get even me started on cell phones.
* Richard Corliss, I’m speaking to you.
** Anyone who can, with complete lack of guile, use that adjectival nightmare “impactful” and not feel a sense of shame so overwhelming as to induce a psychic breakdown is already beyond the pale.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross