A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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Michael Morrison

Thank you, Dr. Cox!

The best column I've read all day.

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