I tend to prefer the idiosyncratic in style to survive and flourish, even at the cost of irregularity and even, on occasion, barbarity. Yet in practice, I tended to be an editor of the hands-on sort. I found I couldn’t bear to have certain words, phrases, even syntax in any magazine I edited. I would go prowling around other people’s prose, unsplitting those split infinitives, sweeping prepositions from the ends of sentences, removing certain over-and ignorantly-used words. I have conducted search-and-destroy campaigns against “lifestyle,” “impact,” “process,” the pretentious “intriguing.” Just now I am quite nuts on the matter of “focus,” a word that shows up in journalism more frequently than Jesse Jackson at the funerals of the famous. I also didn’t permit ideas, movements, or anything except people in a car to be “driven,” nor anything other than large physical objects to be “massive.” I have scores of other tics, quirks, and downright prejudices. I can’t help myself; I have to clean it all up. Anality, you may say. “Anality,” I respond, in the words of a character in a Kingsley Amis novel, “my ass.”
— Joseph Epstein, “C’mon Reiny, Let’s Do the Twist,” In a Cardboard Belt
My first reaction to his linguistic enemies list was to think, “How quaint!” Most of those seem harmless and inoffensive to me; it’s like working up anger against oatmeal or the color beige. My second reaction was to realize that yesterday’s atrocities become today’s status quo, that the words and phrases I find intolerable today will likewise become standard tomorrow, and soon enough (if not already) the correct use of “begging the question” will look as outdated as a hyphen in the word “to-day,” or a capitalized noun in 18th-century correspondence.
So, yes, when I checked the Accuweather site this morning, I was greeted by the above banner announcing a “snow event.” Now, I dimly recall noting that department stores no longer seem to have “sales,” they have “sales events.” But when did this euphemistic bubble-wrap start getting applied to weather as well? What does it clarify to add the word “event” in there? By the way, a prediction of one-tenth of an inch doesn’t even qualify as “snow,” let alone an “event,” so this is a double-scoop of useless verbiage.
In general, I have no problem with some rococo flourishes and aesthetic curlicues in language. Telegram-terseness is not the Platonic ideal of prose. I try to have fun with my own writing, and I love reading dictionaries of forgotten words to see if I can bring any of them back from the dead. I’m not one of those dour fundamentalists who quote Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” like scripture, nor do I look to apply a coat of Strunk ‘n’ Whitener to every patch of purple prose. But there are certainly categories of superfluous speech that make me grind my teeth. Business and marketing jargon, for one. Occasionally, I listen to the local alternative radio station while working, and there’s one vapid commercial in particular that stands out for its inane chatter. The tagline goes something like, “Helping streamline the process of finding solutions to your window needs!” Yes, it’s for a window installation company, though you’d be forgiven for getting the impression that it’s for some sort of consultant service in between you and the people who actually install glass panes in your home or office. If this kind of empty, corporate buzzword-babble has infiltrated the trades, how much further will it go?
Therapy-speak, also known as psychobabble, should of course be eradicated — I would like to have voodoo dolls of people who use the word “journey” to mean anything other than the band. George Carlin already said everything necessary about the insidious nature of euphemisms. I assume it’s a law of nature that the slang of any generation other than one’s own will always be annoying. Journalists and their hangers-on, being highly over-represented on Twitter, have made it so that articles, essays and even posts have become “takes” and “pieces,” as if we needed any more incentive to hate social media. But strangely, one thing that I’ve become increasingly irritated by is casual swearing.
I say “strangely” because I am by no means squeamish about salty language. My everyday speech is still peppered with profanities, though I don’t care for using it in writing very much anymore. But I still remember the thrill of being around twelve or thirteen and testing the boundaries to see when I could finally get away with using bad words around my parents without them scolding me. It was a rite of passage, a way of feeling recognized as more than a kid. However, once that boundary had been crossed, there was no need to exult in it. Like many thrills, the pleasure was mostly in the anticipation. Even in high school, a 2 Live Crew cassette was like samizdat acquired through someone’s older brother. It was only shockingly funny to us because there wasn’t any other music so offensively profane at the time. Après nous, le déluge, though. Now it’s just boring, and I find that I despise hearing something good referred to as “the shit.” Again, not because of any, ahem, anality, but because it’s just so lazy and reflexive. “The new Dead Can Dance music is the shit, man!” Oh, is that supposed to be complimentary? Are you barbarians happy now that you’ve sacked the capital of restraint and decency? Now you’re just amusing yourselves by taking the charred corpses of words and arranging them in grotesque parodies of their former meaning? Like Ismo, I’m perplexed by the way the word can mean almost everything and nothing. Apparently literal meaning is too strenuous for us; we’d rather just rely on tone and emotion to make our point. It’s linguistic nihilism, that’s what it is. Anarchy is loosed upon the words.
November 14, 2018 @ 5:16 pm
I used to keep a little notebook to write down the ridiculous things I heard in business meetings. There were noxious TLAs (three-letter acronyms) galore, but the phrase that had me rolling my eyes hardest was “bio break.” This is, of course, a break you take from work to see to nature’s requirements.
I told my daughter when she was ten that perhaps it was time for her to take up some light swearing. She’s thirteen now and still has not acted on my permission. I almost never swear, though I tried it for a time in my twenties. My wife, however, really knows how to deploy a well-timed expletive.
“Anarchy is loosed upon the words.” That was very funny, by the way.
November 14, 2018 @ 6:27 pm
“Bio break?” I said to the Lady of the House. “What, you’ve never heard that one before?” she laughed. Nope. Never heard it. I think I prefer the version I heard from a flamboyantly gay guy I worked with who said he was going to “make wizzywinkles.”
Why, thank you. It’s like I said on your blog earlier today, puns are a superior form of wit, and I don’t care who says otherwise. I actually went back and added that line in shortly after publishing the post — sort of a staircase wit moment. Now I kind of wish I’d used it as the title. Well, maybe next time.