Words of Auld Lang Syne

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I don’t enjoy the start of a new year. With the exception of one occasion, when I was 12 years old and discovered that if I borrowed my brother’s shortwave set I could listen to January 1 arrive at one place after another around the globe, until it got all the way to Michigan, I have greeted the great event with surly cheer. The appearance of a new year simply makes me aware of all the things that went wrong during the last year, and that still aren’t going right.

This is particularly evident in the case of words. Every year is pregnant with a host of locutions that no intelligent person could ever have engendered, unless disgustingly drunk. But the ugly brats are born, and many of them grow up into big, ugly, popular clichés, monsters that continue stalking the landscape even as the next twelvemonth begins.

One way of hastening their end is to adopt the tactic of the aboriginal tribesman, who recites the names of his gods in order to get rid of them. Another tactic, similar to the first, is that of the modern corporation, which celebrates someone as Manager of the Year in hopes that he will retire.

Inspired by such examples, I now present my list of the Ten Most Gruesome Expressions of 2011, the ten phrases that have most clearly outlived their usefulness, if any. All these terms have lately displayed their full nastiness, though none of them actually originated in 2011 — a year oddly barren of brand-new tripe. Several of them, indeed, are already well stricken with dementia. But let’s not be clinical. Let’s just try to imagine what the world would be like without them, and pray God that they will soon be taken from us.

I’ve ranked our gruesome friends from 1 to 10, according to the danger I think they pose to the republic’s mental health — in other words, according to their tendency to make me sick. To preserve suspense, I’ll save the most sickening expression for last. Don’t peek. The worst is coming.

So here goes, starting with Number . . .

10. “Sweet” — as in the following conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith. This is Dr. Jones. Your tests are back, and they show that your cancer may not be terminal.”

“Sweet!”

Preposterous. But hardly impossible. The Saccharine Salute now appears in conversations everywhere. It started with 16-year-old thrashers and druggies, but it has spread inexorably to older, more sensible types. Remember that I said “er” and “more,” and that we’re dealing with baby boomers here. As you know, we boomers were never as bright as Newsweek thought we were, and our mental age has not advanced as rapidly as our physical age.

9. “Epic.” Another thrasher term, as in “Dude! That is a seriously, seriously epic board,” as in “skateboard.” Since few publicly educated people know what an epic is, the word has easily passed from boarders to radio hosts to TV hosts to half the other people in the known universe. What next? Will “sonnet” become the universal contrastive term? “Dude! I got this gross little sonnet thing stuck on my sneaks, dude!” Ask yourself, what would Milton say?

8. “Due diligence.” This is a legalism, with an actual meaning. Please look it up, the next time you’re tempted to tell your son that you hope he’ll do his due diligence in school today. Until recently, the phrase was confined to legal circles. Then it got into politics, as Republicans and Democrats tried to blame each other for the depression (sorry! I mean the “downturn”) of 2008 and following. The other party had caused the mess by its failure to exercise due diligence. Well, to use the Valley Girl lingo of 30 years ago, “Duh! Yeah! Maybe some people, like all of you, might’ve screwed up. Yuh think?” Notwithstanding this obvious reflection, “due diligence” proved useful for scoring points in the great game of “which political party is better at running the country” (another nasty expression, toward which I will exercise due diligence in another Word Watch). The ultimate winner of this game is the person who can show that nobody in his party ever smokes weed, watches porn, or texts during office hours. “Due diligence” is an intensely conservative phrase, but its conservatism isn’t a philosophy, or anything that makes sense; it’s just a high-church way of covering your ass.

7. “Got your back.” I don’t know where this started, or who kicked it into popularity. It means, of course, that while you run out and try to shoot the enemy, I’ll stay here and discourage people from shooting you in the ass. I wonder: Which of us has the tougher job? The real purpose of “got your back” is to glorify the speaker, not to improve life for the listener. It’s a militant upgrade of the useless “I’m here for you.” I suppose the next upgrade will be “If you go down, believe me, buddy, I’ll give you the coup de grace.”

6. “Icon.” OK, I’ll admit it. In 2009 I published a book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, which is part of a line of books offered by Yale University Press (and available for sale on amazon.com), and this line of books is called the Icons of America Series. So now I’ve advertised my book, and also prevented you from using the “icon” thing against me, since I already brought it up. But what “icon” means, in the context of that series of books, is “something that everyone can picture, and everyone thinks he understands, except that he doesn’t.” That’s a useful concept. There’s another meaning, which is even more useful: “a literal or literary picture that represents concepts of fundamental importance to the people who make and view it.” Thus, the lilies that adorn a picture of Mary and the Christ child illustrate her purity; the baby’s trusting look reveals his innocence; the cruciform gesture with which he stretches forth his arms foretells his redemptive death. There’s a scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus arrives at Ithaca and is greeted by his patroness Athena. They sit under the sacred olive tree and plot the ruin of the suitors. This scene is also an icon. It presents a vision of the ideal god and hero — similar in character, equal in virtue, and equally disposed to plotting and enjoying their plots. But notice: none of this adds up to “Kate Voted 2011’s Top Beauty Icon,” “Patti Smith at 65: From Rebel to Icon,” or “Hotel an Icon in Red Hook for 164 Years.” If “icon” means “celebrity,” call Kate a celebrity. If to be “an icon” means to be famous, say that Red Hook has a famous hotel. I don’t know what you do with the Patti Smith headline. Find some other meaningless word, I guess.

5. “Double down.” This phrase first became popular in an innocent way. It conveyed the stubborn fecklessness of President Obama, a bad gambler who somehow considers himself a good one. Then it became a synonym for “continuing one’s course” or simply “being consistent.” And that is wrong, very wrong. Obama is not doubling down every time he repeats the same campaign speech he’s been using for the past three years. He’s not a risky, heroic figure. He’s not Bret Maverick. Let’s ban this particular chip from the casino.

4. “Dead on arrival.” Here is the Democrats’ new favorite, and they would die without it. Of course, they still have trademark rights to “our children,” “the folks on disability,” “American workers that are out of jobs,” “people that are most in need,” and the all-purpose suffix “in this country” (as in “we need to do better for our children, the folks on disability, workers that are out of jobs, and people that are most in need, in this country”). All these terms have been useful in maintaining the Democratic base in its chronic condition of insanity. But what the Democratic politicians needed was a phrase that would gratify the base while menacing the opposition. Ideally it would be a phrase that expressed both their habitual arrogance and their frustrated spite about their massive losses in November 2010. So they picked up “dead on arrival.” Harry Reid is its biggest fan. When he finds the Republicans in their usual state of legislative dithering, he taunts them by asking where is their bill? When he finds that they may actually have a bill, he announces that the bill will be “dead on arrival.” It doesn’t occur to him that a man who looks like an undertaker shouldn’t be pushing images of dead bodies. It doesn’t occur to the mainstream media either. That’s why this repulsive expression is now appearing everywhere there.

3. “Kitchen table.” Here’s a homey phrase that is useful whenever a “news correspondent” accidentally asks a politician to comment on an important issue. Thus: “Do you think it’s a problem that in a time when other people have less and less money, the salaries and benefits of government employees keep going up?” That’s a real question, for a change. The real answer is simple: “Yes.” The phony answer takes more work. “Well, Marcie, I just think that when the American people sit down at the kitchen table to work out their family budgets, I just don’t think when they’re sitting there at the table, they’re really wondering what other people take home in their paychecks, or what benefits their public servants may have earned. I think what the American people are thinking about when they sit down there at the kitchen table to really think things out, they’re thinking about the really important issues. Will we have economic justice in this country? Will our public workers be getting a living wage? Will we take care of our seniors on Social Security and our young people in our public schools? Is there life on other planets?” “Kitchen table” is this year’s substitute for the first half of the favorite cliché of 2008, “Main Street versus Wall Street.” It’s a slimy attempt to convince you that Pennsylvania Avenue is not the problem. It’s an attempt to fool you into thinking that when you sit there at the kitchen table and stack up your pathetic statements of profit and loss (mostly loss) and try to figure out how you’re going to pay your ridiculous federal income tax, you are feeling exactly what some politician feels when he reclines in his limousine and tries to figure out how to make you pay still more. I’m surprised that I ranked this one as only No. 3.

2. “Up for grabs,” as in “the Iowa caucus is now up for grabs.” Nothing unusual about this one — just the awful certainty that for the next 11 months we’ll be told that “South Carolina is up for grabs,” “Florida is really up for grabs right now,” “there are over 400 House seats, and they’re all up for grabs,” and yes, “the White House itself is up for grabs.” I suggest that this metaphor be replaced by something similar but more explicit. Let’s try “the Senate is up for sale,” “the House is up for sale,” and “the White House is up for sale.” Those expressions would acknowledge the fact that if you tell the voters you are not going to pay them off, you are not going to increase Social Security benefits, increase veterans’ benefits, increase students’ benefits, increase almost everyone’s benefits, while decreasing almost everyone’s taxes, you will not be elected. Or so we are told.

Now bring the drums and trumpets! The end of the procession is in sight.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We are what our president calls the

1. “Folks.” All right, this is just another Obama-ism. But does that make it innocent? Certainly not. Yet its origins are sad. The f-word first gained control of Obama’s mind when the polls showed conclusively that he had lost the “folks.” So he obsessively created stories about various kinds of “folks” — “folks sittin’ around the kitchen table” (see no. 3, above), “folks that are just tryin’ to balance their checkbooks,” “folks that are hurtin’,” “folks that we’re helpin’” — an enormous crowd of folks to surround and comfort him. I reckon I’m one a them folks, cause I’m really hurtin’ when I hear crap like this. It worked for Huey Long, but, sorry, it doesn’t work for a guy who ran for president on his credentials as a Harvard grad. It there are folks in this world, President Obama is a non-folk. Like most partisan words, however, “folks” has wanderlust. It doesn’t care which side of the aisle it’s on. And why shouldn’t the Republicans have their crack at it, too? I’m sorry, very sorry to say this, but 2012 is likely to be the Year of the Folks. That’s what makes No. 1 so dangerous.

Now, that’s sort of a downer, isn’t it? You see what I meant about New Year’s. We’ve come to the end. The awards have been given. Nobody’s happy. It’s time to leave the auditorium.

I’m sure you’ve noted, however, that most of phrases on this year’s roll of shame are political. I put it at six out of ten. This is not an accident or product of my own whim. There is a law at work here, a law of linguistic devolution: the larger the government, the more it talks, and the more influence it has on everyone else’s discourse. That can’t be good.

But just remember: Liberty’s got your back.

 




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