by Stephen Cox | Posted February 06, 2012
Last month, this column gave out awards for the ten greatest linguistic monstrosities of 2011. It was not required that the winners be born in that year — only that they had been prominently, glossily, and grossly overused in it.
I thought I'd made my decisions wisely, but evidently I was wrong. Word Watch has an intelligent and discerning audience, and there was a great outcry against my choices.
No one asserted that the ten expressions were innocent and charming victims of Cox's vindictive spleen. After all, who could defend “dead on arrival” (used for every piece of legislation one doesn’t like), “icon” (used for everything except religious pictures), or “epic” (used for everything whatever)? The objection in each case was to my omission of other candidates, expressions just as worthy of hatred and fear as the ones I mentioned.
There was merit — much merit — in the protests I received. It is therefore my duty, and my pleasure, to publicize some of the strongest additional candidates for inclusion among the Most Gruesome Expressions of the Year Just Past. Again, there’s no requirement that a contender should have originated in 2011. The distinguishing characteristic is disgusting overuse.
I’ll arrange this new set of linguistic freaks under four headings.
1. The labor theory of value
When the January Word Watch was published, an anonymous correspondent wrote immediately to ask, “What about the awful term ‘worker,’ which apparently we've all now become?” To which a reader named Rusty replied, “I would add 'working families' to the list.”
They're both right. The labor theory of value continues to spawn all kinds of smarmy words. The current use of “worker” (which I'm always tempted to pronounce as "woikuh," in the old Daily Woikuh style) is one of the most insidious items in our political vocabulary. It has no meaning of its own; it’s just a code for other things. Stupid other things.
Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn.
My anonymous reader was getting at that when he noticed that we are all "workers" now. Yet because the word is used only to signify good things, certain parties are necessarily, though illogically, excluded. When President Obama uses the term, he plainly doesn’t mean “everyone who works.” He doesn’t mean people who work on “Wall Street” (however many thousands of those people he also has working in his own administration). He doesn’t mean employers. He doesn’t mean doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. He means something like “manual or subordinate laborers.” He means the people whom he frequently pictures as “living from paycheck to paycheck.”
I don't know any Indian chiefs who live from paycheck to paycheck, but maybe that's because I don't know any Indian chiefs. I do know plenty of doctors and lawyers who live that way, just as I know plenty of people who work with their hands but have no problem meeting their mortgages. So Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn. Let me tell you, my doctor does a lot of work when he has to deal with me.
The core reference of this coded language of work is “union labor.” That type of labor is, understandably, a central concern of Obama's administration, since unions were crucial to making him president. Yet from the intellectual point of view (and Obama is supposed to be an intellectual), it’s too bad that he and his friends want to wipe the literal meaning of "work" completely off the map. If the unionized denizens of the DMV do “work,” and lifesaving medicos do not, then what happens to the concept of, well, work? What happens to "effort expended for a productive purpose"? It vanishes, that’s what.
I haven’t mentioned the odor of self-righteousness that now attaches to “worker,” the word. All so-called workers, such as our friends at the DMV, are assumed to be more deserving, more useful — in short, better than everyone else. This is simply, directly, and stupidly offensive. It’s worse when the reference spreads to people who don’t even pretend to work, as in “working families.” Now the two-year-old child of the DMV desk-holder is included among the Woikuhs of duh Woiurld, and the medical scientist remains in the outer darkness.
2. The awesomeness of awesomeness
Willard Brickey wrote to say, “Maybe you've mentioned it before, but ‘awesome’ is a word abused so often that it's practically impossible to use it in its original, legitimate sense.”
True. The current plague of “awesome” resulted from some mutation in the brains of skateboarders and other such people. For more than two decades, “awesome” has been employed as a universal adjective, the anointed successor to such words as “cool” and “incredible.” At first it was boards, waves, and dudes that were awesome; but soon it was everything — caps, tatts, high ‘n’ tights — that was in any way associated with maleness. (“Awesome” is a male-coded word.)
This disease had ugly precedents at the other end of the social spectrum from gamers and thrashers. Historically, “awesome” has been most strongly associated with religion. But at some point in the 20th century, people, even religious people, stopped being interested in traditional religious language. They were no longer sure what “awe” might mean, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the word itself must have some power, since it appeared in prayers and stuff like that, but they were confused by the “some” that often got attached to it. Unwilling to resort to a dictionary, they assumed that “awesome,” the adjective, was some kind of general intensifier that could be used on anything.
Here’s an example — with a fairly long preamble.
Virtually all Christian songs that are widely known today were introduced before the mid-twentieth century. One reason is that around that time — the time when the Baby Boom first went to school — many otherwise verbal people stopped being interested in traditional literary language. They suddenly didn’t know what “hither” meant, let alone “thither” — or “sustain,” “solace,” “deplore,” or “chide.” They stopped having enough language to write enduring songs. They stopped understanding songs that had been universally popular only a few years before. They couldn’t understand what the hymn writer meant when he said, in the moving last stanza of a song that used to be standard in Christian congregations:
God be with you till we meet again:
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.
What, they wondered, could "smite" possibly mean? And how does a banner "float"?
So songs like that began to vanish.
“Amazing Grace” is a Christian song that everyone still “knows.” It was written in the 18th century and popularized by its use in a movie (The Onion Field) in 1979. Despite its present popularity, which is generally based on a serious misunderstanding of its meaning, no one could write that kind of song today. It has too many of those, like, weird old expressions in it. It even refers to “snares.”
The only other universally recognized Christian song that was popularized after the mid-20th century is “How Great Thou Art.” To my ears, this song is the pale, bewildered ghost of a great tradition. One proof is that it begins in this way:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .
Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee.
How great thou art! How great thou art!
When I hear those lines, my own soul says, “How dumb this is! How dumb this is!” Awesome doesn’t belong in there. The singer means that God is “awesome.” Fine. But what he says is that his own “wonder” is “awesome.” Which is dumb.
But why the hell shouldn’t he say it? Can’t awesome be applied to everything?
O Lord my God, it can be. But when you hear that anything-goes awesome, you are hearing the “ave atque vale” of our linguistic heritage.
If you don’t know what “ave atque vale” means, go look it up. That will be an awesome experience for you.
Snobbish? I don’t care. Would you rather know something, or not know it?
3. We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was
Let’s proceed from the falsely sublime to the truly ridiculous. One reader insisted that I must have been paid not to mention the scandalous misuse of “General” and other honorifics. I wasn’t, unfortunately — but here’s what she meant.
The Attorney General of the United States is not a military officer. Neither is the Surgeon General of the United States. They are not generals. They never lead troops into battle. They are attorneys or surgeons ingeneral service to the nation. Yet when Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, came before Congress to testify about his role in the gunrunning operation known as Fast and Furious, he was repeatedly asked such questions as, “You’re not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it wasn’t your responsibility to have known about this problem?” The questioning congressmen didn’t understand what Holder’s title meant — any more than congressmen, commentators, and other potentates understand that the Surgeon General should not be addressed as General or appear in the Ruritarian, supposedly military, uniforms in which, beginning with the Reagan administration, they have obtruded themselves on the public attention.
Why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker?
Worries about the Attorney General turned my reader’s attention to worries about political titles ingeneral, and their persistence in particular. “When,” she wondered, “do people stop being this or that which they have been in the past?”
Good question. Receiving it, I had fond memories of R.W. Bradford, founder of Liberty, who often lodged the same complaint.
At the House committee hearing called to investigate Jon Corzine’s behavior as head of the IMF investment outfit, Corzine revealed that he had no idea what had become of $1.2 billion invested with him. That was startling enough; almost as startling to me was the fact that Corzine sat behind a committee-provided sign that read, in big black letters, “The Honorable Jon S. Corzine.” Corzine is “honorable” because he used to be a senator and a state governor. Used to be (thank God).
The poet Wordsworth wrote insightfully of spiritual states that do not cease — that “having been, must ever be.” Apparently it’s the same with Corzine’s “honor.” No matter what happens, he keeps his titles, and even his moral additives, forever. He even keeps his middle initial, as if there were some other Jon Corzine, equally involved in both scandals and congressional investigations, who might otherwise be confused with him.
For God’s sake, isn’t there any statute of limitations for these political functionaries? When Gertrude Smith retires from the DMV, even she (one of the “woiking class”) isn’t addressed as Counter Clerk Smith for the rest of her life. So why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker? Is he likely to be mistaken for some other Gingrich, currently running for president?
4. How to grow your identity
So far I’ve considered individual readers’ additions to my limited list of linguistic follies. Two expressions, however, produced a general chorus of “Why didn’t you mention this?”
The first is “grow,” as in “grow the economy.” A number of readers pointed out that “the economy is not a plant.” Others observed that “if the politicians, Democrat or Republican, keep saying, over and over, that ‘we need to grow the economy,’” they, my readers, will be forced to uproot their party affiliations, chop down their vote-bearing trees, and send all political literature to the compost heap.
Those are cogent remarks. “Grow,” the organic metaphor, is absurd when it’s applied to such palpably inorganic things as “the economy,” “my bank account,” “your sales campaign,” or “your marital happiness and engagement.” (My spam box is full of offers to “grow” that last entity.) But I have something more against “grow.”
Think of the explanations it replaces. Precisely who is to grow the economy? President Obama? President Romney? The man in the moon?
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were known as “the baker and the baker’s wife,” on the assumption that they provided bread for the people of France. Now our president is pictured as the chief grower of our economic destinies. It’s hard to say which expression is sillier.
And precisely what is to be grown? Explain that to me. Investments? OK, how? How are they grown? Or are revenues the crop? Or jobs? What’s the seed? What are the tools? But don’t worry; we need to elect someone who can grow the economy.
So much for grow. The second type of “why didn’t you mention this?” referred to those demon twins, the political pronouns “we” and “our” — monsters now appearing everywhere in the discourse of presidential candidates.
Originally the political function of these words was to deflect personal responsibility, as in the president’s frequent comments about how “we, uh, we never, uh, said that this process of, uh, economic healing wouldn’t be, uh, hard or that it, uh, wouldn’t take a, uh, uh, long time to, uh, provide what we, uh, want to provide.”
The deflection function persists. But for Obama’s Republican opponents, “we” and “our” have an aggrandizement function also. The pronouns are the Republican candidates’ way of inflating their magnitude, of multiplying their insignificant personalities.
“From the start of our campaign our intention has always been to,” oh, whatever. How many times have you heard that one? More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away. It’s just too weird when somebody checks into a hotel as “Newt Gingrich” (singular) but tells everyone outside that he’s actually a whole mob of candidates.
Michele Bachmann, whose continued presence “on the campaign trail” will be missed by five or six of her “fellow Americans,” has always had difficulty fitting the start of her sentences to the ends thereof. So naturally, she told Fox News that “no other candidate [singular] is doing a 99-county tour of Iowa, but we [plural] are.” That would have been easy, if there had been plural Bachmanns, but I’m happy to say there weren’t.
Bachmann was such an irresistibly representative American illiterate that I number myself among the few who will miss her (or them). She provided constant instruction in how the English language should not be used. She was even more helpful in this regard than Sarah Palin. You could always trust Bachmann to say something pompous and foolish.
More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away.
By “illiterate,” incidentally, I don’t mean “folksy” or “colloquial.” I wish that political candidates would speak good colloquial English, rather than the speech-from-the-throne lingo they prefer. Unfortunately, they have nothing compelling or colorful to say in any dialect. The fact that they resort for emphasis to the official “we” demonstrates just how far down the linguistic totem pole they are.
On January 19, Gingrich reported, “Callista [his wife] and I were really honored today when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed us.” If you want ickiness, this is almost as good as “working families.” It seems that when I’m voting for a candidate, I’m also endorsing the candidate’s spouse. And maybe the kids and the dog. Today, all candidates are Kennedys.
Even Donald Trump, who brought ego to the Republican Party and now brings ego to the so-called independents, has started talking like this. Asked, before the Iowa caucus, whether he was going to support Mitt Romney, if Romney won, Trump repeatedly resorted to the plural pronoun: “We’re watching, to see what develops.” Someone of my age can’t help remembering the
two-headed dragon once impersonated by Fred and Ethel Mertz in the old I Love Lucy show. The monster wandered across the television scenery, eyes rolling, tail switching, pretending to growl. But it was still Fred and Ethel Mertz. And that’s one more character than Donald Trump can manage to impersonate.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. Newly published is Culture and Liberty, a selection of works by Isabel Paterson.
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