The Age of Plaster


Last month’s Word Watch characterized the current era as the Age of Small Minds. A comment was made about that column, an interesting comment too. It was a critique of efforts to distinguish one “age” from another. I responded as best I could, but the truth is, it’s hard to resist naming Ages — as hard as it was for H.L. Mencken to resist naming Belts: you know, the Bible Belt, the Infant Damnation Belt, and so on.

My current idea about the current age is that it should be called, at least in its literary dimension, the Age of Plaster. By “plaster” I mean the kind of stuff that people slather onto a sentence, just any old way, so that the sentence will sort of warm the heart, convey an impression, avert criticism, earn a paycheck, earn a doctorate, or, as the plasterers say, whatever.

The idea is to cover the sentence with the stickiest, gooeyist phrases you’ve heard in the past 24 hours, preferably phrases you’ve heard 24 times during that time. This shows that the plaster will wear well. A good plasterer can get through a whole day — seven days, 365 days, 10,000 days — without having to think about what he’s doing. It’s all routine, and it’s all the same.

A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything.

Instead of stating, simply and clearly, that you called Helen to ask for her advice, you can dredge your wet bucket of words and say that you reached out to Helen to get her input. You don’t need to worry about the fact that getting input is a generic term for what happens with computers, a term not applicable to human beings and not capable of distinguishing between begging for advice, asking for an opinion, drumming your fingers while you pretend to listen, and demanding a complete report by Monday. But why bother to figure out the difference, when input will get you through the sentence?

And why worry about that jarring noise one hears when a banal computer term is coupled with an expression that, until 2014, suggested intense emotional need? Until then, people who were crossed in love reached out to their friends for solace. Communities devastated by natural disasters reached out in desperation for the assistance of others. People who had lost their jobs reached out to their families and friends. You can almost see those hands reaching out. So is that how you reached out for Helen’s input?

A few years ago, I toured the Michigan state capitol. The guide pointed to the beautiful copper chandeliers, elaborate constructions with their lights hanging from effigies of the state’s heraldic animals, the elk and moose. “See those things?” she said. “When they restored the building, they discovered that basically, the chandeliers were hanging from nothing. It was all just lathe and plaster.”

Many a rhetorical elk and moose depends from the plaster ceilings of 2015. Probably there isn’t a day in the Michigan capitol when bureaucrats fail to inform the public that their newly invented infringements on liberty are motivated by an abundance of caution; that without the latest rules and regulations, who knows how many families in this state might have been put in harm’s way?And if these coats of plaster aren’t enough to cover the lathe and support the copper fauna, the bureaucrats will undoubtedly add, If we can save just one life . . . ?

Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not.

Or we can save just one job — the speechwriter’s. Or the news writer’s. It sounds impossible, but people are actually paid to write newspaper stories about the legacy of Michael Brown. Or about that closely related subject, the many legendary aspects of our world. A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything. High school volleyball seasons are legendary; local sheriffs are legendary, with legendary careers; a retiring chemistry prof is legendary; an obscure 18th-century doctor is legendary. I like Joan Rivers as well as the next person, maybe better; but tell me, what legends are actually told about that legendary performer?

Here’s another kind of news story (AFP, May 14): “Kiev — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appointed John McCain, a hawkish US senator who has pressed Washington to send lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine, as his advisor, his administration said.” As Han Solo once exclaimed, “You said a mouthful, Chewie.” Senator McCain is a hawk, and Ukraine has something like a war going on, and I don’t like either of those things; in fact, I detest Senator McCain. But that’s not a promising way for a news story to begin. The key is “lethal weapons.” Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not. Lethal weapons is verbal plaster, a way of tarting up a news story until it can double as a partisan attack.

To accomplish the purpose, the words don’t have to make sense. War-torn: what does it mean? Was America “war-torn” from 1861 to 1865? Certainly, if you lived in Virginia. If you lived in Maine, maybe not. But war-torn sounds so definite, doesn’t it? So much like settled science. Being torn is bad; being war-torn must be twice as bad, indeed evil. And imagine the evil of sending lethal weapons to a place that is already war-torn! Horrible to contemplate.

Well, there are plaster saints — of the which McCain is one — and there are plaster arguments. I hope I’m not required to choose between the two.

Most of the verbal plaster that’s now being slung comes out of the political bucket. It’s politics that creates presidential speeches that contain not a single memorable line, just lumps of flattery flung at every demographic group and lobby the speechwriter can think of. It’s politics that creates press conferences so clogged with plaster that nobody cares what was said; everybody just discusses the means that were used not to say anything. This doesn’t mean that words were finally dispensed with. One wishes that they were, and that the press agents resorted to mere gestures. That would be more than enough. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director, was asked how she cut the Nazis’ long-winded speeches down to only a few seconds. “Oh,“ she said, “there’s nothing hard about that. With a political speech, all you need is the beginning and the end, and just something in between.”

But politics isn’t the only source of verbal plaster. The ultimate source is the social assumption, no doubt inspired by our non-educational system, that words — their meanings, their histories, their emotional associations, their logical implications — are of no importance when compared to something, almost anything, else.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required.

What does it mean to say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the latest victim of senseless violence? Are the people who say this actually praying? Are they actually thinking? And according to what definition is a murder or riot actually senseless? There wasn’t any motive? There was, but no one can understand it? What? What do these people mean? Do they even know whether the victim had a family? Or cared about it? If they themselves really cared about any of this, they wouldn’t be using these hackneyed phrases.

To cite another example: what does it mean to say that the outcome was negative, or I had a positive reaction to her proposal, or he had a really negative attitude? If the people who use such words cared about conveying a specific meaning, wouldn’t they think for a tenth of a second about the words available to express it? A positive reaction: is thata good reaction, or a favorable one, or a pleasant one, or an enthusiastic one, or a mildly approving one, or what, exactly? If they cared about words and their meanings, why would they let negative take the place of bad, unfavorable, damaging, disastrous, fatal, slightly unfortunate . . . again, every word that’s available to convey a thought? Such people are not trying to cover up their true feelings (as opposed, I guess, to false feelings). They don’t regard their feelings as important enough to define. They want to talk, but without disrupting their intellectual snooze.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required. Chelsea Clinton is unlikely to lose her job at the Clinton Foundation, no matter what she says. So, on purely financial principles, why shouldn’t she tell the world, as she did on April 23, that the Foundation is hard at work on many issues, “whether that’s around women and girls”? Huh? What is that, and how is it around? And Andy Levy isn’t likely to lose his job on Red Eye because he, like most other people in the media, said squash when he should have said quash. The difference is that Levy immediately corrected himself, thus demonstrating that he cares more about the meaning of words than about the sound of his own voice, even though it’s the voice that earns the paycheck. Let this event, Levy’s Self-Correction, be recorded, together with its date: April 24, 2015. It was a victory of mind over plaster.

Not all of Levy’s friends at Fox deserve to be seen in this positive light. Jenna Lee, one of the many blonde young ladies who give the network its distinctive tang, was burbling on May 8 about the Kennedy family when she strove for a supreme verbal effect and emitted, “These figures are so icon.” She got her effect, but it seems kind of negative to me. How much do you care about words if you use icon as an adjective?

It was another Foxite, Andrea Tantaros, who fell to discussing a female sports referee (April 9) and observed, “She’s knows how to ref, which she does know how to ref.” It has long been common, among people who are not paid for the words they use — in fact, among illiterate people — to employ which as a universal substitute for and, but, although, because, and any other connective you can think of. But Tantaros is paid — apparently to apply such verbal plaster. Rand Paul, noted for his large quantity of words, is also a pretty good plasterer. On April 7, he told Sean Hannity — he who introduces every other sentence with the word now, with no interest in discovering any other way of plastering over his own lapses of continuity — “If you raise defense spending, which I think we do need defense spending . . . .” Bill Clinton was puzzled by the meaning of is; Rand Paul is unclear about the meaning of which. I prefer Paul, but hell, he’s making it hard.

Political blather . . . how about religious blather? Yes, the clergy have been master plasterers for a long time. But now the Bible is filling up with the gray sticky stuff.

The New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press) is the Bible translation mercilessly pushed by modernist clergy. The damned thing is everywhere — in the liturgy, in Bible studies, in college courses, and I assume (gruesome thought) in deathbed devotions. The NRSV is a terrible translation, flat, pretentious, and sometimes remarkably inaccurate. I was recently reminded of that while I was looking up the Bible episode in which a man is consumed by worms because he took God’s glory to himself.

These are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that.

He’s Herod Agrippa, and it happens in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Herod says something in public and the admiring crowd exclaims, as at some utterance of a US president, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” That’s how Acts 12:22 has been translated in the past, and the meaning is perfectly clear in the original. If you’re wondering about the original of “man,” it’s “anthropou,” the genitive of “anthropos.” The word means “man,” plainly and simply. It’s impossible to find a passage in the Bible that is easier to translate.

Unluckily, the translation I seized from the bookcase was the NRSV. And how does this much lauded work of scholarship translate the passage? It manages to render it as, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

To repeat: “Anthropos” means “man.” It does not mean “male.” It does not mean anything about mortality, one way or another. But let’s get to the most important question: what crowd would say a thing like that? What person would say a thing like that?

Not Thomas Jefferson, who did not hold it self-evident that all mortals are created equal. Not Abraham Lincoln, who did not say that the field of Gettysburg had been consecrated by the blood of brave mortals. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did not write a sequence of poems called Epitaph for the Race of Mortals. They didn’t say it that way, and they wouldn’t have said it that way, because saying it that way would have made them look as if they didn’t give a damn about the words they used.

But to the august Bible translators, the meanings of words, their emotional associations, their dramatic proprieties and plausibilities — these are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that. The assumption is that once political correctness is secured, any kind of verbal plaster will be good enough to cover the gap between Acts 12:21 and Acts 12:23.

This the kind of thing that makes real liberals shudder. And what can be next? Mortal and Supermortal? “A mortal’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” “Ecce homo: behold the mortal”? Very probably. They’re all just words. Just something you spread on a wall.

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Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

"Actions speak louder than words." That little catch phrase is also rich in plasteritude because it can be a "good" thing to say. What is important is to, like you mention in the article, examine the meaning of what is said. That is why when you watch Sean Hannity, (mister "extreme islam") or Bill O'Reilly, it is so frustrating. They grab your attention by bringing up a topic, but then just blather without ever giving any flesh to the conversation. The most done trick is to regurgitate the topic thereby renewing your hope that they will actually put meat on the bones (flesh out the discussion). This is why the statement that talk is cheap has actual flesh because the truth is that you can talk profusely about something and all you get is the equivalent of graffiti, hollow crap spewed on a wall.

Another plaster I hear a lot during the past year is, infrastructure. Talking about high speed rail and bridge repair doesn't actually (that action part of the first sentence) fill potholes (another common plaster word). I think that the reason plaster is so common is that it is "cover". Cover means it hides the truth.

Speaking of religion, as you did bringing up the NRSV edition of the Bible, "mortal" doesn't even mean huMan. It just means entity that dies (because it is previously alive). I recently have noticed where the words we use can not be clearly interpreted. In the liturgy of the eucharist, I used to say, "I am not worthy to receive you." I interpreted this as I don't deserve to have you put in my hands. I now say, "I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof." At first, this really confused me and I took it literally that God shouldn't come into my house. I think that I see it clearly now, that since God (Jesus' body) is the eucharist which I eat is God entering my house (my body). Therefore, what you do with your word watch is beneficial because it calls our attention to what otherwise is plaster, and puts flesh on this talk.


P.S. In writing this, I think I just became aware of what euchrist means. I initially typed eucharist because that is my phonetical rendering of the spelling. However, euchrist when translated from Greek is "true Christ". This makes sense considering the piece of unleaven bread is the body of Christ.

Scott Robinson

P.P.S. I have seen that my first thought was correct, the word is eucharist. It comes from the Greek word, eucharistia, which means thanksgiving. My previous thought comes from my thinking that the eucharist is the label for the unleavened bread, which is the purpose it is used for often, however, eucharist is a label for the "Last Supper" ceremony. I still wonder if the "eu" in it is based on the root "true". Makes me wonder what the "charistia" root means.

Drew Ferguson

Hi Scott—

The Greek word "charis" or X means "grace" or "favor"; it is derived from a verb that means "celebrating" or "rejoicing." It's the root also of charisma.

The prefix "eu-" means "good," as a eulogy is a good word or eugenics a good birth or euthanasia a good death. (And yes, you're right to hear in these another eu- word: euphemism.)


Scott Robinson

Hi Drew,

Thank you. I see what you mean, euphemism, is "good speech". Saying things that are true is good speech.


Paul Thiel

I wish Mr. Cox had informed us of his preferred bible version. I cannot be the only one looking for a better version.

Stephen Cox

Thanks, Paul. I should have said something about that.

I recommend the Revised Standard Version (as distinguished from the New Revised Standard). The Revised Standard reflects the highest standards of scholarship and a very considerable respect for the importance of finding English words that convey the tone of the original. The Bible is really a library of books, not one unified book, and its books vary greatly in tone, as they do in authorship, occasion, and genre. But one thing they all have is dignity--not pomposity, which is something else, but a conscious elevation of language that is signaled by a difference from “normal language” or “the language of the common man.” Isabel Paterson said that the Bible wasn’t written in the language of the common man; it was written in the language of scholars, philosophers, and poets, and it cannot be successfully translated into any other language. The translators of the RSV were conscious of that, and they produced a modern version that is sound in scholarship and also of considerable literary value.

The King James Version is still very useful. It is the only great literary work produced by a committee, and it is the only English translation of the Bible that has enjoyed any kind of literary influence. It is the strongest single influence on the English language. Although important manuscripts of the Bible books have been discovered since the publication of the KJV in 1611, the careful copying of manuscripts in antiquity and the middle ages means that there aren’t lots of big differences between the original-language texts that we use now and the texts that were used by King James’s translators. Sometimes the KJV just gets something wrong, but almost always it gets it right; and one reason for this is that it is a very literal translation. When the translators didn’t understand what the original writers “meant,” they translated the literal words anyway—and this is very important, if one wants to see what is in the original, without the questionable benefit of other people’s conjectures about its meaning, masquerading as translation. Many passages of the Bible—mostly in the Old Testament, but some in the New as well--are still mysterious in meaning, and any translation that doesn’t allow them to remain mysterious is, basically, lying to the reader. It’s interesting, also, that the KJV translators made a conscious decision to use forms of English that were not archaic but that were just fading out of the commonplace—in order to give their translation that distance from the ordinary that imparts a tone of dignity.

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