Two thousand twenty-one was a year of monstrosity in every field, not least the field of language. I intended this column to present an ordered list of the biggest linguistic horrors that visited us last year, but the monsters proved impossible to measure. The effort to sort and arrange them was too repulsive to continue. So what follows is close to a random sample of offenses. I’m sorry! And I’m sorry that any of this should have happened.
Here’s one offender: Jennifer Rene (“Jen”) Psaki, main mouthpiece for President Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. Psaki is not an accomplished liar, but she is a very fluent one. She dispenses brittle mendacities faster than Barbies leaving the conveyor belt. I began the year with a grudging admiration for her ability to spit out syllables instantly and thoughtlessly, in response to any conceivable question; then I realized that anyone can do it if she isn’t worried about the truth. So Psaki established herself as the chief source of our knowledge that spending trillions of dollars you don’t have will actually reduce inflation, that Biden had a plan to deal with the supply chain crisis for many months before there was a crisis, that the flight from Afghanistan was well planned and well executed, that there is no crisis at the border. . . . Need I go on?
I began the year with a grudging admiration for her ability to spit out syllables instantly and thoughtlessly; then I realized that anyone can do it if she isn’t worried about the truth.
Psaki’s fundamental job is never to admit a mistake or even seem to be hinting that a mistake might possibly have been made by anyone other than a political opponent. Her closest approach to such a hint was a cleanup operation in December about home covid testing. Earlier in the year she had — rationally, for once — dismissed the idea that millions of Americans should be enabled to exercise their paranoia by trying to find out whether they had a disease so dangerous they couldn’t tell whether they had it. Then Biden, eager to do something even if it’s counterproductive, launched a program to pass out half a billion test kits. Next, he babbled to an interviewer, “I wish I had thought about ordering a half a billion [tests] two months ago, before COVID hit here.” How could Psaki reconcile her own declarations with the prattle of a boss who had momentarily sneaked out of control? Here’s how:
I would say [then go ahead and say it, Jen] there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t leave this podium and wish I would have said something with greater context or more precision or additional information.
Well, don’t let us stand in your way. Whenever you have that context, precision, and information, let us have it. But she never does.
Another superspreader of unhealthy language was Center for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, who appears before microphones so frequently that one imagines she has something to tell us. By this time, I would have expected her to explain, for instance, how cloth masks manage to trap those little, tiny, tiny viruses; or why kids should be vaccinated, when they have a microscopically small chance of being harmed by the virus; or why she should keep campaigning for more people to get vaccinated, when those of us who are vaccinated are steadily losing the benefit of their jabs. (You gotta love that tough, masculine, heroic, media word for a painless pinprick.) This she is apparently unable to do. When pressed, as she was by an NBC interviewer on December 28, she falls back on a word that by its constant misuse perhaps best typifies the verbal horrors of 2022. That word is “science.”
The interviewer asked her why, considering the variety of wrong but cocksure things her agency has said, anyone should “trust” the CDC. She replied:
My job right now is to take all the science and the information that we have and to deliver guidance and recommendations to the American people that is [sic] adapted to the science at hand. This pandemic has given us a lot of new and updated science over the last two years, and it is my job to convey that science through those recommendations and that is exactly what we’re doing.
You gotta love that tough, masculine, heroic, media word for a painless pinprick.
Count how many times she said “science.” And every time she used it wrong. Science is not a bullying upgrade you give to views or opinions, a term that lends you enough prestige to make people stop questioning you. Science is not just some “information,” true or false, that is constantly getting updated. When, before now, have you ever heard somebody say, “I’m going to convey some science to you”? Never — because science cannot be “conveyed.” Science is a method of thinking, a way of testing hypotheses by fact; it is not the conclusions that may possibly come out of that process.
The greatest abuse is to call one’s temporary conclusions, opinions, guesses, or hunches not just “science” but “the science,” as if one had come into exclusive possession of the truth. In what other area of life is this kind of thing permitted? Would any audience tolerate someone saying, “The history shows that Lincoln was right about Ft. Sumter,” “The criticism now reveals that everyone ought to read War and Peace,” “The religion demonstrates that God is merciful”? What kind of childish jabber would that be? But in 2021, this was the jabber by which Americans allowed themselves to be buffaloed into surrendering their businesses, jobs, and schools.
That’s the tragedy of 2021. The farce was the seemingly limitless incompetence of those who were paid to talk or write but obviously not expected to read. Consider the following.
- Fox News, October 1: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew up the white flag Friday evening, admitting that ‘more time is needed’ to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is one of the pillars of President Biden’s agenda.” Isabel Paterson once referred to writers who were so bad they couldn’t get a cliché right.
- President Biden, speaking to House Democrats, October 28: “We are at an inflection point. The rest of the world wonders whether we can function.” What “the world” is wondering is whether Biden can function. There’s no point in wondering whether he knows what an inflection is.
- Reuters, on arguments about virus mandates, September 30: “Friction around [just hovering around?] the issue has turned typically benign school board meetings into ruckus gatherings with yelling and heated disagreements.” Let’s raise a raucus.
- RedState, October 24: “In July, Texas Democrats slinked away to avoid a quorum on a Texas voter law.” And after that they singed a happy song.
- The Washington Examiner, September 3: “They [the inhabitants of Normalville, Pennsylvania] wanted their lives to reflect the bucolic scene this Fayette County town evoked after nearly a year of a deadly pandemic that had turned their lives upside down and took loved ones.” If good writing fully engages, involves, and challenges its readers, this sentence may be good writing. It challenges its audience to imagine lives that reflect a scene that a town evoked. Nice trick if you can do it. Then the audience is harrowed by the idea that a pandemic had took somebody’s loved ones. Worse yet, readers must stand by, helpless, while the language collapses all around them.
Many common words are perishing in the crash. Give, a simple verb, one we use every day, is being destroyed by — oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth! — gift, its thankless child. And for no reason at all. Start counting how many times a day you hear somebody say something like, “My friend gifted that to me.” It wasn’t enough for him to give it; he had to gift it. Why? The speaker doesn’t know. He probably heard some politician use the word.
This was the jabber by which Americans allowed themselves to be buffaloed into surrendering their businesses, jobs, and schools.
Gift can be classified as a pomposity, examples of which abound in our increasingly pompous society. (Why increasingly pompous? Because it’s increasingly stratified, which is because it’s increasingly bureaucratic, which is because it’s increasingly shaped and controlled by government and the corporate clones of government, and because every government rules by status and hierarchy and the bullying arrogance inherent in them.) Utilize instead of use: that’s not new; we’ve had that one for generations. But now we have “laser focused” (much better than just “focused,” which would be like “knoll” without the “grassy”); the eschatological forever, instead of the homely permanent (“In a forever stain on Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan pullout, the Pentagon admitted it mistakenly killed 10 innocent civilians,” etc.); and the wholly useless moving forward or going forward.
Here’s an example of that — again, drawn virtually at random from the farce that is our written culture. I was pleased to learn that Andrew Cuomo’s absurd Emmy Award had been withdrawn. (Question: when will that happen to Obama’s Peace Prize?) But I was not pleased to read in the Hollywood Reporter that according to the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, if you please, Cuomo’s “name and any reference to his receiving the award will be eliminated from International Academy materials going forward.” I think “will be” pretty much settles the question of when the unpersonization will occur. It will occur in the future. Going forward is just another useless, stuffy pomposity.
There are thousands of other ways of being pompous, and 2021 was very good at finding them. Try metaphors. An instance, from RedState, September 1. Steel yourself.
That [a revealed conversation between Biden and former President Ghani of Afghanistan] was the last piece of the puzzle to cement Biden’s downfall. To the extent that he could weather the growing media criticism and an ever collapsing situation domestically and abroad, he could only do so without a barrage of leaks targeting his competence and character. Those are coming now, and as Trump can testify to, that’s the one thing that can haunt a president until the moment he leaves office.
In short, the final firewall appears to have been breached, and for Joe Biden, it’s all downhill from here.
It’s enough to turn you into a lover of Biden. Well, almost enough. How many metaphors do you find in those 90 words? I see puzzle, cement, ghosts, firewall, falling down, weathering, and targeting and conducting a military barrage. There may be more, once you unpack it.
One of the rational rules of writing is the prohibition of metaphors that are “mixed” and therefore cannot be visualized (how can a piece of a puzzle cement a downfall?). But 2021 was the twilight of rational rules, including the principle that a news story should give you the basic facts — the who, what, where, when, and maybe why — as quickly as possible. Did you notice, during the past year, how long it took you to get to the subject of a story? If the headline announced that a man bit a dog, when did you find out who was the man, where and when he attacked the dog, or what was the nature of the man-dog beef? How many paragraphs did you have to spend on the importance of dogs in American families, the incidence of biting crimes during the past ten years, the geography, demographics, and climate of Summerville, USA, where you vaguely surmise the crime took place, because no one will tell you that? Five paragraphs? Ten? Did you ever find out?
It’s enough to turn you into a lover of Biden. Well, almost enough.
Do a paragraph count on the next few news stories you read. Then ask yourself, how could any news writer manage the amazing feat of delaying the news until — notice that my imagery here is coherent and visualizable — the last dog was hung? Ignorance? Lack of editing? Contempt for readers? Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. But how does it all work? What kind of culture produces this stuff, and the audiences who tolerate it? And what can be done about it?
One response to these questions can be found in a story that broke on the last day of 2021. It’s about writing in the public schools. The Arlington, Virginia teachers’ union sent a whiny letter to the superintendent demanding various pointless actions against The Virus and concluding with the claim that “our educators continue making the ultimate sacrifice.” The union was so proud of this ridiculous screed that it headed it “FOR IMMEDIATE PRESS RELEASE.” Then a parent, who calls herself “ellengallery” online, made a splash with her own press release, republishing the letter with corrections of its many obvious errors.
Her work was hard. The missive begins with a provocative sentence: “On behalf of the members of the Arlington Education Association, this dire expression lends great concerns for Arlington Public Schools (APS) return plan for January 3rd, 2022.” Take a minute to figure that out. Are you ready to go on? OK. The dire expression, which is apparently the letter itself — and boy, is it dire! — continues in deplorable but by now predictable ways: “Indoor lunch, even among asymptomatic students and staff are significant risks (and one risk too many).” “The airline industry continues to cancel thousands of flights due to increase staff and Covid related illnesses. The fire departments in are region are exemplifying domino outbreaks as well.” “Exemplify”! If you can’t teach literacy, at least you can exemplify pomposity.
It should be noted that, according to the Wiki entry for Arlington Public Schools,
Forbes magazine named the Washington, D.C. and Arlington area as the top place in the nation to educate one’s child in 2007.
In fiscal year 2019, close to $637.1 million was budgeted for the school district.
That gives you the picture. Maybe, going forward, the ellengallerys of this world can do something about it.