Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

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On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




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Comments

Jo Ann

Another wonderfully vented peeve, Stephen! I am reminded of George Orwell's advice to writers in his essay "Politics and the English Language": "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Or hearing on television, I might add. Too often, yesterday's clever phrase turns into tomorrow's tired cliche. If I read one more student describing how an author "takes you on a roller coaster of emotions" I am likely to throw said student under a bus. And it won't be metaphorical.

Smile

Stephen, I enjoy your writing on language. I suggest that you might enjoy watching an episode of the Australian TV series "Rake", Season 2, Episode 2 "R vs Fenton." It lampoons the security state and their language.

Ed Sheehan

I thought it was squarsh.

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