Don’t Gift Me, Bro


Last month’s Word Watch presented a list of terms that were prominent in 2017 and we can do without in 2018. That column was popular in one way and unpopular in another. Many people read it — and wrote to tell me that it was woefully deficient. Too much left out!

Now look. I could write a 10,000-word column about depraved and ridiculous uses of language, but in the immortal words of Tristram Shandy, “Will this be good for your worships’ eyes?”

Nevertheless, I’ll try to fill in some of the blanks left by last month’s column, using linguistic horrors provided either by outraged readers or by my own outraged researches.

Given that performance, it was obvious that Wray’s public statements would repeat the arrogant asininity of Comey’s.

But first! The word outrage prompts a brief digression. It’s about Tucker Carlson. Isn’t he a good writer? I’m not talking about his political insights or lack thereof, but just about the quality of his prose. And it’s getting better. His TV show opens with an editorial monologue, and when I compare the monologues from six months ago with the monologues he’s writing now, I seem to see a good-better-best progression. Anyway, back on December 22, Tucker said on his television show: “A large portion of the American public is now addicted to outrage.” Isn’t that true? And isn’t that a good way of saying three things, briefly and cogently: violent political emotions aren’t confined to a few people; this outbreak of outrage happened recently (“now”), and it isn’t merely a brief emotional spasm; it’s chronic and addictive. He said this in 12 words; it took me 28 to paraphrase it. And he hit the bullseye even more frequently in February than he did in December.

But now, since I’m already digressing, I may as well say something else I’ve been meaning to say, although it’s not about the meanings of words; it’s about their pronunciation. One of the things I always held against the pompous, prissy James Comey, whose strongest expression of dismay was “Lordy!”, was his pompous, prissy pronunciation of the word processes. He pronounced it “processEEZE.” Now, why would anybody say it that way? When talking about Comey and his friends, does anyone refer to “dumbassEEZE”? Was the FBI one of Hillary Clinton’s “franchisEEZE”? And how about “Comey’s second guessEEZE”? Is that how we say it?

This pronunciation is even more emphatic in its advertisement of the speaker’s stupidity.

Behind “processEEZE” lies the same kind of embarrassment before words that people exhibit when they wonder how to make “princess” plural and come up with “prinCESSes,” or can’t figure out how to say that Mrs. Hastings has a pet and end up referring to “Mrs. Hasting’s cat.” Comey isn’t alone in devising weird pronunciations. “EEZE,” the phony plural, has been a badge of Washington pomposity for many years. If you want to identify people whose method of suggesting that they’re “smart” is to demonstrate that they’re dumb, listen to their plurals. When Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray, testified before Congress, it was notable that he kept saying “processEEZE.”

Given that performance, it was obvious that Wray’s public statements would repeat the arrogant asininity of Comey’s. You’ve probably seen the supposed apology that Wray issued for the FBI’s failure to do anything at all with a citizen’s detailed warning about Nikolas Cruz, who then proceeded to murder 17 people in a Florida high school. Wray said:

We are still investigating the facts. [As I mentioned in last month’s Word Watch, that’s what this gente always says. The idea is to keep saying it until everyone else forgets.] I am committed [How touching! But this also is what they always say.] to getting to the bottom [A fresh and heartfelt phrase.] of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes [Reviewing them, as opposed to doing anything about them.] for responding to information that we receive from the public. It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant [Wray can’t bring himself to reflect on the behavior of his own org without criticizing all the rest of us.], and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly. [This is the place where members of the public look for some discussion of why “we” didn’t do that. Still looking . . . . ]

We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this [What’s the referent of this? It could be “our abject failure,” but curiously, failure is not in Wray’s statement.] causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy. All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe, and are relentlessly committed [There’s that word again.] to improving all that we do and how we do it.

Oh, for God’s sake — all of you are relentlessly committed? Then how did the Florida disaster happen? How did the Peter Strzok-Lisa Page disaster happen? And how did all of the FBI’s other gross failures happen to happen? I guess the processEEZE will have to be reviewed.

Meanwhile, we are enduring a blizzard of accusations from all parties, alleging that their political opponents are being “divisive” — pronounced “diVISSive.” This may be worse than “processEEZE.” It’s pompous and it’s prissy and it reflects a similar inability to understand the words one uses. What word does “diVISSive” come from, “diVID”? But this pronunciation is even more emphatic in its advertisement of the speaker’s stupidity. After all, processes, no matter how one pronounces the word, are seldom the point of emphasis of anyone’s remarks. But divisive always is, wherever it occurs, so that the mispronunciation calls even more attention to itself.

So much for things I wanted to bring up. A reader wanted me to discuss the horror of going forward, moving forward, and other expressions that redundantly and ungrammatically signal future action. An example: speaking of Wyndham Lathem, the Chicago professor accused of the bizarre murder of his boyfriend, Chicago Tonight said, “[Judge Charles] Burns wasn’t present at Lathem’s arraignment in September, but said he will be the trial judge moving forward.” That’s a typical conclusion for what is proving to be a typical American sentence: moving forward.

All of you are relentlessly committed? Then how did the Florida disaster happen?

Typical, and bad. Such expressions are invariably redundant because they follow one indication of the future (“will be”) with another (“moving forward”). They are ungrammatical because . . . What moves forward? In the Lathem example, the only candidate for what is the judge, but he’s not moving anywhere. I suppose it’s the legal case that will move forward, but case is not in the sentence, so it can’t be modified by moving. “Moving forward, going forward,” and all their linguistic kin are engendered by nothing but a vague anxiety that one has somehow not said enough, coupled with a strange unwillingness simply to notice what one has, indeed, already said. They are the type of “are you with me?” gesture that we see constantly in this age of insecure communication. All right? You understand? OK? I really mean it. Ya know?

More than one reader — actually two of them — let me know that something should be done about “on,” as in “on you.” When, for instance, Hawaii was terrorized by a false alarm about an atomic attack from North Korea, Jamie Lee Curtis, whoever she is, tweeted, “The Hawaii missile crisis is on you Mr. Trump” (who had nothing whatever to do with it). In general, people who use on you or on me as a substitute for the very cumbersome and difficult “your responsibility” or “my fault” are illiterates who should never be discussing questions of this nature.

But I do enjoy their imagery. If you take these expressions literally, you have to picture men and women plastered with such things as missile crises and failed garbage pickups and teenage drinking and the absence of party favors at a 6-year-old’s birthday bash: it’s all on them. And in theory, any adjectival expression can be used about the past as well as the future, so it’s fun to think of statements such as “The Great Depression was on the Smoot-Hawley tariff,” “The Civil War was all on John C. Calhoun,” and “The Sodom disaster was definitely on Yahweh.” But fun like this isn’t worth the annoyance.

"Moving forward, going forward,” and all their linguistic kin are engendered by nothing but a vague anxiety that one has somehow not said enough.

Here’s another complaint from a reader: gifted. This isn’t about gifted painters, or gifted young sopranos. It’s about: “For Christmas I gifted him with a new nine iron,” “Michelle Obama Finally Reveals What Melania Trump Gifted Her at the Inauguration,” and “Pippa Middleton gifted her sister this sentimental piece of jewelry — and it's actually affordable.” The first passage is something I made up, to show where the whole ugly process began. Apparently, gifted intruded itself on the contemporary language as a pointless substitute for gave. Its users may have been the same kind of people who use moving forward to make sure that you got it, right? — I’m talking about the future, OK? So, dude, gave has only one syllable, right? So you might miss it, right? So why not give it two syllables, ya know? Right? OK? Which gifted has, ya know? And besides, maybe gifted sounds more festive? Right?

In the distant past, like, two years ago, gift (used as a verb) was an obscure expression, seldom employed, and cursed with bad associations, such as its association with a shadowy companion, with. Says the American Heritage Dictionary (1982): “Gift (verb) has a long history of use in the sense ‘to present as a gift, to endow’: He gifted her with a necklace. In current use, however, gift in this sense is sometimes regarded as affected and is unacceptable to a large majority of the Usage Panel.”

Notice the telltale with: “gifted her with.” The tale it tells is called: “The Burden of Affectation.” When people wanted a better, cuter, more precious word than gave, they went, sometimes, to gifted, but they had to take with along, because that’s how the expression had always appeared in print: gifted with.

I like that one especially, because when you first read it, you think that Pippa gave away her sister.

Yet even illiterate people can be affected. And when, seized with the desire to be better, cuter, and more precious themselves, they decided to substitute gifted for gave, they missed one of gifted’s idiomatic requirements, which was with. The result was, “Pippa Middleton gifted her sister this sentimental piece of jewelry.” I like that one especially, because gifted is followed by an indirect as well as a direct object, so when you first read it, you think that Pippa gave away her sister. Gosh, how sentimental. And it’s actually affordable. Thus gifted became the language of love. Ya know?

This is a good place to acknowledge the concerns of a faithful reader about “there isn’t any there there,” “nothingburger,” and other clichés of emptiness. Eighty-one years ago, in a book called Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein wrote of her hometown, Oakland, California, “There is no there there.” During the next few generations, this bon mot was occasionally quoted, usually to show that the quoter knew something about Gertrude Stein. Then, suddenly, the thing was here here and everywhere everywhere. No one could write about American politics without asserting that there was no there there in the opposition’s statements, programs, arguments, accusations, proofs, or patriotism. You’ll notice that people who use this expression usually say it with a look that claims they’ve got something very smart in their noggins. But there’s no there there, any more than there was in Oakland.

I’m not sure who came up with nothingburger, although verbal burgers have been with us for quite a while — consider an article by Nora Ephron (1970) that quotes Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, as saying, “If you’re a little mouseburger, come with me. I was a mouseburger and I will help you. You’re so much more wonderful than you think.”

Nonentities can now become dominant and stay dominant. Think Meryl Streep. Think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I myself was once a little mouseburger, but I’m not coming with her. I’ve had it with burgers of every description. They were never very impressive, and they’ve exhausted their 15 minutes of fame.

See! I can make trite allusions like everyone else — this time to something that Andy Warhol wrote in 1968. Fifty years later, “15 minutes of fame” can be heard 24 hours a day. Warhol’s idea was that in the future nothing would be much more significant than anything else; the dominant culture of the media would allow nothing but itself to get that way. This isn’t exactly what happened. It’s true that total nonentities can now become “stars,” and insignificant political events can now be heralded, for about “15 minutes,” as game-changing moments. But that was true in 1968, and 1958, and 1948 before it. More important is the fact that nonentities can now become dominant and stay dominant. Think Meryl Streep. Think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The reason isn’t lack of communication, as in Cool Hand Luke (“what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”), but lack of imagination, lack of the ability to think of anything to replace nothing burgers with something burgers.

The proliferation of “media” may be relevant. It may be harder to think, to visualize, to imagine things for yourself when you can feast 24/7 on other people’s images. But whatever the cause, if you believe that Meryl Streep is a great actor and Barack Obama is a great orator and Stephen Hawking is a great philosopher and Doris Kearns Goodwin is a great historian and George F. Will is a great political thinker and Paul Krugman is a great economist and the New York Times is a great paper and Angela Merkel is a great European leader and Pope Francis is a great religious leader, this means that you cannot imagine anything better than these wretched substitutes for greatness. And if you can’t think of any better words than “there’s no there there” and “it’s a nothingburger,” then, actually, you cannot think. And that’s where we are right now.

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Robert H. Miller

Stephen, I can't believe you missed the completely erroneous and common adjectival use of "gifted," as when it is used as a substitute for "retarded." This usage becomes even more absurd at times when it's also often used as a substitute for "intelligent."

I know "retarded" is no longer in fashion for a variety of PC reasons. However, on a recent walk across England, I was heartened (and couldn't stop laughing) when I came across a sign on a second-hand shop that advertised the premises as "Spastic Shop." Even I wouldn't go that far...

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

So, is it potaytoe, or potahtoe? I think that it should be pronounced potaytoe, but that potahtoe is the aristocrat, sophisticated pronunciation. I think that the phenomenon of gifted instead of gave is because saying gifted has a double entendre. Not only does gifted substitute for gave, but it also means that the person who says it is gifted with superior intellect or some other adjective which is desirable to the listener.

I think we should coin the word, clichely. You could then say, "Stop speaking clichely." We would be cutting edge. Because edges need to be cut.

Speak Well,

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