Isabel Paterson said, “What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of things” (see our October 1993 issue, p. 39). She was mainly concerned about political agencies and political schemes, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind her observation being applied to words as well. This country needs a lot less of all sorts of words — most of them politically inspired, but bad words in any case.
Here are a few of 2016’s worst and most prominent verbal offences. I am indebted for some of them to the advice of readers, but I won’t credit these friends by name. I don’t want them to be criticized — or, to use the vernacular of 2016, I don’t want them to get death threats from haters and Nazis.
On haters and Nazis, see below. My list is alphabetical, and it starts with:
An abundance of caution. Before 9/11, this phrase — once shy, legalistic, recherché — was willing to appear in public only about once a decade. Now it is in the mouth of every hack official who decides, for no reason at all, to inconvenience or endanger his fellow citizens. On January 6, an insane person shot up the baggage lobby at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. He was immediately arrested. But passengers who had already cleared security were still held captive, without baggage, without food, without restrooms, for at least five hours. From time to time, medics showed up to cart one of these caution-damaged passengers away. There was no abundance of caution about heart attacks or ruptured bladders. Half of the airport didn’t reopen until 24 hours later, at which time it was discovered that innocent people had lost 20,000 items of luggage, pieces of identification, and so on. This shows what an abundance of caution can do. I suggest alternative and more accurate expressions: an abundance of stupidity or an abundance of arrogance.
Artists. This term should be retained for people who actually create art, as opposed to people who just decide to call themselves artists. Such artists are, almost invariably, people who screech or bellow popular music or do visual art that resembles, in the late Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “something that’s left behind after a child has — pardon the expression — done its business.” Real artists call themselves painters or singers or sculptors or writers or composers, not generic artists. They are concerned with what they create, not with the kind of titles they can procure from agents, marketers, or peers — a peer being someone who gives you an award or serves as a peer reviewer when you’re trying to get a grant. Such awards, such artists, and such peers have multiplied greatly since tax money started being used to fund almost anyone and anything capable of irritating old-fashioned (i.e., sensible) minds with the latest revival of Dada and other remains of the Great War avant-garde.
Is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question.
Death threats. For the past year or so, everyone who makes a public fool of himself — by, for instance, harassing other people about their political beliefs — has responded by demanding sympathy because of the death threats he has therefore received. Hard evidence is seldom offered for the existence of these threats, partly because no one in the media asks for evidence and also, probably, because the threats either don’t exist or exist in some such form as “I don’t like you” or “You are an imbecile” or the still more heinous “Why don’t you just grow up?” We must remember that for some people, growing up would be worse than death. But it isn’t just individual idiots that receive death threats. It’s idiot institutions, too. If some 14-year-old phones a death threat to P.S. 38, a superintendent with the aforementioned abundance of caution will lock down every school in the district, thus justifying the three press conferences he and the police chief and the mayor have been dying to hold. It’s one small step for safety, one giant leap for self-congratulation. But what else are schools for?
Divisive, used of persons whom one dislikes, and when so used pronounced di-VISS-ive, with a facial expression suggesting unanimous condemnation by the faculty of Harvard College. Americans supposedly do not want to be di-VISS-ive. But is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question. Yet people who rant against divisiveness are not precisely idiots. They are aspiring social strategists. Their strategy is to infuriate people who disagree with them and then to remark that these people are responding divisively, thus tricking them into surrendering.They may also lecture them about the importance of reaching out to one’s opponents, building bridges, healing wounds — in short, doing the opposite of what they themselves are doing. Clearly, this is a strategy adopted by cynics who realize that there is nothing to be said for their own positions and are trying to win by sapping their opponents’ self-respect. If my comments on this issue are divisive, make the most of it.
Get and got, as in “I get it,“ used as the introduction of a counterargument, or “You got this,” used as a means of encouragement. The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”
Give back, as in “It’s Christmas, and many people are taking this occasion to give back to the community.” At Christmas, 2016, I received precisely that message from an organization to which I routinely give — combined with the suggestion that I engage in the national orgy of giving back by sending some more of my money. I replied, in part: “I have nothing to give back. I have earned what I own. No one — least of all you — has given it to me. I give because I want to give, not because I think I have some obligation to do so. I don't like the implication, and I suggest that you will get more money, from me and others, by abandoning it.” I received no reply; nobody gave back to me.
The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”
Going forward, moving forward, as in, “What is our plan, going forward?” These expressions appear to have originated among government bureaucrats and to have been spread by political speeches. They now appear wherever people wax pompous about implementing their agendas. The phrases in question are usually plunked into a sentence with as little regard for grammar as you see in the example I quoted. According to that sentence, what exactly is going forward? We are, surely; yet “we” is not in the sentence, although “our” is. But no matter who or what is going on its merry way, I’m sitting this one out.
Hate speech, haters, etc. I assume you’ve noticed that people who habitually employ these terms tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know. The observation is substantiated by the violent response that some of them are making to the fall election. Of course, there is never any reason to punish people — verbally or legally — for not liking others. When haters become physical harmers, there are plenty of means to punish them; but does anybody, not a moral fanatic, care whether the guy who assaulted him and stole his money hates him, or whether a guy spewing political obscenities also feels hatred? The hate vocabulary is just a way of insulting the people you hate, because they haven’t done anything that merits any other kind of punishment.
Icon, as in conservative icon, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood icon, pop music icon, and the like.Icon does have some useful meanings. It means a religious picture. It means those little blibs and blobs you see on a computer screen. It can refer to passages in a work of literature that, like pictures in a church, symbolize a set of values and make them memorable. All these things can be called icons. But what does that have to do with Madonna? Icon has become a word that means “famous” and “good.” Often it just means “good.” The wordis always an honorific; headlines never say, “Joe Blow, Icon of Crime, Dead at 96.” Indeed, icon is most useful for what can be called merit-smuggling — the awarding of unearned value. (See legendary, below.) When you encounter an obit for some iconic figure of whom you never heard, it’s probable that this is nothing more than a posthumous attempt to manufacture greatness. Such is commonly the case with recently deceased activists for discredited, usually communist, causes.
Issues, as in the ad that advises you to “help defend against those digestive issues,” meaning “use our brand of laxative”; or in the frequently heard complaint “my son has issues,” meaning unspecified psychological problems; or in the cry of the chronically outraged, “I have issues with that.” Issues seems to have arisen in the politicization of feeling that was the legacy of 1960s radicalism, whence it spread to political discourse generally and now to every phrase that gestures at a difficulty, problem, illness, or complaint.Look: if you need a laxative, take it; if somebody has a problem, say what it is; if you ‘re angry, say what you’re angry about. But if you have a real issue, meaning something you seriously want to discuss (“I’m concerned about the issue of Medicare”), call that an issue and we’ll talk about it, not just fake some empty sympathy.
People who habitually employ "hate" and "hate speech" tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know.
Legendary. Ulysses is a legendary figure. Odin is a legendary figure. Cary Grant, as much as I like him, is not a legendary figure. For one thing, he really existed. For another, there are no legends about him. I don’t mean lies or little stories about things that probably never happened. I mean there is no legend of Cary Grant and the Golden Fleece. Cary Grant did not discover the Seven Cities of Cíbola, nor is he a figure in the Götterdämmerung. Debbie Reynolds was a good actress and a great dancer, but she was not the face that launched a thousand ships; pace the media, her death did not make her a legend. Real people do, sometimes, have whole cycles of false but romantic stories associated with them. In that sense, it is possible to discuss the legend of John F. Kennedy, although myth, a more neutral term, would be more appropriate. (Just in case you’re wondering, I explored this matter in an article called “The Titanic and the Art of Myth”: Critical Review [January 2003] 403-434.) One can also talk about the legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774–1845), a great man about whom many doubtful — not necessarily untrue — stories cluster. But Mick Jagger, Meryl Streep, and Mad Dog Mattis are not legends, even in their own time.
Nazi, fascist, KKK, and all their ideological and linguistic cousins. On January 11, President-Elect Trump likened the practices of US intelligence agencies to those of the Nazis. That did it for me — it was one Nazi too many. If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out that way, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination. Can’t you think of anything else to call people you don’t like? There’s another problem. If you use these words, you’ll soon have a pathetic lack of listeners. Almost everyone knows that Hitler is dead.
Parse, as in “parsing the press secretary’s statement, one finds . . .” What one finds is that the press secretary intentionally suggested (without literally stating) a meaning that the audience might swallow but that could be denied if the audience finally choked on it. That is clearly objectionable, but what is the objection to using the word parse for the game of creating or interpreting such a statement? It is the same objection I would lodge to calling calf testicles prairie oysters. Parse is a term of grammatical art; it comes from a much more refined environment than that of its currently popular use, which is understanding and appreciating doubletalk. People who parse politicians’ statements are ordinarily changing the subject from the politicians’ tricks to their own equally cynical, and equally cheap, cleverness. Parse is a flower that grows on dung heaps.
Passed (a euphemism for died). The original of this expression was passed away, itself a euphemism for deceased, which was a euphemism for died, but at least potentially meaningful in the context of an assumed belief in the afterlife. Passed is, perhaps, like season’s greetings, an attempt to escape from any offensive expression of religious convictions. But the residue makes even less sense than the original. If you passed, where did you pass to? These days, people don’t even pass away. And like many other bad children, this expression is trying to kill its parent. In 2016 I started hearing passed ten times more frequently than passed away.
Passion. In an omnipresent television advertisement, a man speaks of his wish for a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in. “This to me became my passion,” he says. Well, enough said.
Reach[ed] out to. Until approximately November 15, 2015, this was a moderately expressive phrase for moderately unusual acts of communication, accompanied by unusually strong emotions: “My sister and I had a fight, but later she reached out to me, and now I think it’s OK”; “The priest reached out personally to the homeless people in the neighborhood.” Then, suddenly, and for no reason at all, the phrase became equivalent to sent a routine request, called in an idle moment, asked how late the cafeteria was open, bothered me with pictures from his summer vacation. The confusion between the first kind of meanings and the second says a lot about the pompous way in which Americans are learning to treat their ordinary affairs (see passion, above).
If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out to be a Nazi, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination.
The slash, as in hopes/fears, requests/complaints, liberty/democracy, and so forth. I want you to look at this little article from January 4 of the present year. You won’t get through it, because it’s the most boring thing ever written, except for any of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. It’s a farewell letter written by the British ambassador to the European Union. Yeah, you’re asleep already. And it gets worse. The reason I’m bringing this up is that the man starts his almost incredibly prolix message, in which every sentiment is repeated at least five times, with a prominent slash:
Happy New Year! I hope that you have all had/are still having, a great break.
Probably he thought it would be good to allow for every possibility. He wanted to be inclusive. Maybe some people were still having a good time; maybe, for some other people, the good times had passed. He couldn’t decide. Yet he was addressing “All.” What to do? And there is also the possibility that he didn’t know what day it was. Whatever. When in doubt, use a slash.
Poor Sir Ivan Rogers. But this is the problem of all who slash: they can’t decide whether it’s yesterday or today, good or bad. They can’t decide whether they’re talking about politics or economics, or politics and economics. So they write yesterday/today, political/economic, good/evil. In the same way, Daniel Webster cried, in the peroration of his second reply to Hayne:
When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken/dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered/discordant/belligerent. . . . Let their last feeble/lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the Republic, now known/honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms/trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased/polluted, nor a single star obscured . . . but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea/land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart: Liberty/Union, now/forever, one/inseparable!
Inspiring, isn’t it, what you can do with a slash?
In fact, I’m too inspired to continue. I’ve had enough for now.
Just one more thing: have you noticed how many of the atrocities I’ve been examining in this column have emerged from the field of politics, or have flourished best in that environment?
You may think that this is simply because I’m not hip to all the cool new lingo, in which I could have discovered many strange expressions that have nothing to do with politics. If you think that, you have a point — but how much harm is done by saying that somebody you admire is chill, or that it’s been a long time since you hung with him? Not much. I’m reluctant to add such small, merely recreational linguistic experiments to my repudiation list. And it’s true that passed has practically nothing to do with politics, although it easily made the list. But take a look at the other items, and I think you’ll see fresh evidence for my conviction that the American political establishment, which is the world’s biggest supplier of words, is also the world’s biggest supplier of idiotic words.