Word Watch – March 2010

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“What this country needs,” wrote Isabel Paterson in 1932, “is a lot less of all sorts of things.” She was thinking about laws – laws regulating “vice,” laws regulating the economy, laws regulating anything and everything in American life. As she said on another occasion, “There is practically nothing you can’t be put in jail for now.”

Her idea about America’s need for less applies to words as well as laws. What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of words. Right off the bat, I can think of ten expressions we could stand to hear less often – never, in fact.

Here, then, are this year’s leading contestants for the Pat Award: the Isabel Paterson Prize for Phrases that Should Be Quashed. (Yes, “quashed,” not “squashed,” as the politicians and the media would have it. So that makes eleven expressions we don’t need.)

I present, first, the seven semi-finalists:

Failure is not an option. This has been kicking around for a long time in Rambo circles, but in 2009 it migrated to the Left. It was the phrase that the U.S. Attorney General used (twice, in the same breath) to assert his seriousness about the prosecution of the 9/11 defendants, thus ensuring that nothing the courts manage to do with them will be seen as fair or just. Even when the phrase is used in regard to people who are notoriously guilty, it evokes memories, not of Solomon, but of Torquemada. And one can hardly think of a better example of arrant subjectivism than “failure is not an option.” All it means is “you can’t fail because I don’t want you to.” Try to imagine a cosmos in which that statement would be appropriate. You can’t? Then you’re fired failure is not an option.

Advocate for, as in “he advocates for the uninsured.” Yeah, okay, all right already – so exactly what does this guy advocate? “Advocate” used to be a transitive verb.

Activist, as a professional title. This goes with the last one. The same people who say, incessantly, that their existence is justified because they are “advocating for” something – always something that restricts the freedom of other people – are identified as “activists,” as if “activist” were a title like “judge,” “priest,” or “homemaker.” All they are, in fact, is busybodies and loudmouths, so why not identify them as such? I read an obit in our local paper the other day, about a wealthy woman who had done nothing, throughout her life, but try to horn in on other people’s business. She was lauded as one of our community’s great “activists.” Well, may she rest in peace.

Due diligence. This has some kind of technical legal meaning, and that’s fine. But if you use it to describe what you do when you shovel your sidewalk, or make sure that your kids eat their oatmeal, or take that one last shit before you board the plane, you’re committing an offense against mental health and safety.

Grow, as in “grow the economy.” There’s nothing wrong with “growth,” I suppose, as long as you’re not talking about cancer or the government. But there is something wrong about discussing money, jobs, careers, family happiness, or other desirable things as if they were crops that can be grown. They may grow, but you can’t grow ’em. I call for the banishment of all politicians, preachers, and “inspirational speakers” who talk about “our commitment to grow the economy,” “your opportunity to grow your family values,” or even “the best way to grow your personal wellbeing.” Life is different from Mr. McGregor’s farm.

Kill any more trees, as in “let’s do that by phone, so we don’t kill any more trees.” Now, I like trees (so long as they’re not throwing apples at me), and I don’t like waste, but I can’t see why wasting my time is any better than wasting a bunch of wood pulp. Speaking of growth – trees will grow again. I won’t.

If we can save just one. . . something, as in, “These laws will be justified if we can save just one life,” or, “These emissions standards will be justified if we can save just one polar bear from over-heating.” Really? Why? Let me put it this way: “Your being forced to drive at 10 mph for the rest of your life will be justified if it guarantees that you will never run down a pedestrian.” Do you think so? Try another: “Your refusal never to tell the truth about anybody else’s flaws will be justified if it saves just one person from a loss of self-esteem.” But how about this: “Your refusal to employ moronic cliches will be justified if it keeps just one sensible person from going off the edge”? That last example sounds good to me.

Join now in congratulating our seven Honorable Mentions! May they enjoy a well-merited and permanent retirement. We turn, then, to the Second Runner-Up for the Paterson Prize of2010. And it goes to …

Give back! What? No applause? Well, admittedly, this one’s a sleeper. Few could have predicted its sudden rise to prominence. I didn’t. Yet during 2009 it sneaked into everybody’s mouth and with what amazing effects! There’s a woman running for public office in Los Angeles whose ads actually maintain that she “went into business, as a way of giving back to the community.” Really! I suppose that’s why Tiger Woods first got involved with golf; he just wanted to give back. And now he’s trying to keep the community at bay. That’s happened before … But to return. Please, everybody, give it up for “give back!”

Thank you. We now proceed to First Runner Up. In the event of the winner’s inability to serve, this contestant will take its place at all presidential press conferences. On such occasions, there can never be enough cliches. So, at this time, I am happy to honor a contestant who has been plugging away for many years – They! – yes, they, the ever-popular, politically correct substitute for the singular pronoun. If any syllable deserved a pleasant and obscure retirement, it is “they.” As Pogo almost said, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” The users of “they” go so far as to say things like this about Tiger Woods (yes, him again): ”Any woman can come out and say that they are his lover” (guest, Greta Van Susteren show, Fox News, December 4). Notice the aplomb with which “they” shoves even “she” aside. Some people, including the president, can hardly get through a sentence without the use of “they.” Nevertheless, as myoid boss used to say, “No one is indispensable.”

Thank you, “they,” for all you’ve done to eliminate sexism in the English-speaking world. Thank you, and fare you well. For now the magic hour has come; it is time to announce this year’s highest honoree, the Winner of the Pat. And the prize goes to … Green. (Cheers, tears, and a standing ovation.) Here is a word – yes, please take a last bow,

Green!, for you are truly the idol of the people – that has heroically met all challenges posed by history, science, and common sense, and has made itself an adjective fit to be united with any conceivable noun. “Green” has become the first truly universal modifier. It takes a lot of courage – it takes a lot of gall – to achieve a role like that. “Nice” tried it, but it didn’t have the range. As early as the 1920s (witness its ironic treatment by Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises”), “nice” revealed its limitations. People saw how silly it was to use a word like that as a substitute for “everything that’s good and true.” And it never managed to mate with certain words. No one was willing to discuss “nice science,” “the nice revolution,” or “the pressing need to create nice jobs.” Maybe “nice” was just too … nice. But “green” has no decorum. It is immune to taste or reason. It will go anywhere, do anything, so long as there’s a dollar or a vote to be had.

But there’s a strange thing about words: when they’re everywhere, they’ll soon be nowhere. At least it’s pretty to think so. And now, to “green,” and the other Honored Ten, Word Watch says thank you, thank you, thank you, and good-bye. It’s time, as they say, that we move on with our lives.

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