Word Watch – May 2010

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The world of words is like a banana republic — a scene of turmoil in which low and common entities constantly compete for power. You can tell what kind of regime you live under when you observe which ones come out on top.

Barbara Branden has written to remind Word Watch of an entity that currently enjoys great prominence in America’s banana republic of letters. It’s the word incentivize. The expression is far too prominent for Barbara’s taste, and her taste is good. In objecting to it, however, she must know that she is incentivizing its users to push back against her partisan opposition. Even now, the Federales may be massing around her door, ready to take her into custody and remove her to that land from which literate persons do not return.

But here’s something to think about. While Barbara lives strictly in the private sphere, I work for a public university — yet even in my shop, people are continually being “incentivized,” as if they worked for the Acme Widget Corp. Maybe that’s a good thing; at least my colleagues and I are being encouraged to do some work. Nevertheless, one look at incentivize tells you a lot about the nature of our society, and it’s not a pretty picture.

This is a society in which one thing just sort of leads to another thing, usually in an ugly, bureaucratic way; a society in which boring Greek and Latin nouns transform themselves without warning into weird and freaky adjectives, which are never perceived as weird and freaky but are eagerly accepted by all the best people in all the best social positions. I’m not sure that literary critics qualify for any of those positions, since I’m a literary critic, but it’s wonderful to see how willingly we paragons of literacy suck up expressions like problematize and thematize, words that appear to mean little more than “give emphasis to.”

Ours is a society in which unnecessary verbal complications are thought to indicate intelligence, not stupidity or confusion. That’s why you must never suggest that people at work should be “encouraged” or “rewarded” or “allowed to profit”; instead, you must say that they need to be “incentivized.” If you do so, both your brains and your sensitivity will be admired, and the employees won’t feel that they are being marginalized. It’s assumed, though without sufficient evidence, that they won’t suspect they’re being patronized, either.

Ours is also an increasingly socialist society — a society of “rugged collectivism,” as Martin Luther King described it. In such a closely packed society, words spread like diseases, and with similarly ill effects.

Today I went to a faculty meeting in which one person happened to use the term “drill into.” He said, “Our committee wasn’t charged to drill into all the details of the 2010–2011 bud- get.” So far, I had no objection. It wasn’t a bad image, especially if you come from oil country, as my family did. But here’s the problem. During the next 60 minutes, ten other people decided to use that expression. First it was “I think you were right not to drill too deeply.” Then it was “We need another committee, to drill more deeply.” After that came “We need another committee, one which will really settle down and drill deep into the insides of this whole issue of transparency in this budget that’s now here before us.” At last there erupted a heartfelt, truly personal expression — which was couched, alas, in what had become
the language of the collective: “I’m determined to drill into this budget until I find the truth!”

But I wondered: would the speaker have had the emotion, if he hadn’t been given the phrase?

Anyway, here’s another word that illustrates the power of the collective: nimble. It’s an Obama administration word.

President Obama used it to describe the type of government he prefers. Then his cronies picked it up, and it spread throughout the country. We can be thankful for one thing: it isn’t another Greco-Latin word. It derives from a common Anglo-Saxon verb, “niman,” meaning “to take or seize” — something that makes it very relevant to the current administration, which would like to take or seize almost anything that isn’t nailed down.

Of course, that’s not how the president wants the word to be understood. He wants his administration to be seen as busy and efficient, like a troop of Boy Scouts, always jumping around, doing good for everyone. So he seized on “nimble” to describe the kind of “programs” he wants. And now, because he used that word, every “automotive service center” is emitting spam that touts its “nimble customer interactions,” and every corporate bureaucracy is putting “a nimble response to contemporary challenges” into its mission statement.

This happened all at once. As in the Coleridge poem, “The Sun’s rim dips ; the stars rush out : / At one stride comes the dark.” “Nimble” started as a humble private in the army of words. It was an adjective applied chiefly to the anthropoid apes. Then suddenly, because Obama cited it, the word became Sergeant Nimble, Lieutenant Nimble, Colonel Nimble, General Nimble, Generalissimo Nimble, President of the Republic and Commander of All Its Forces Nimble.

But there are other verbal warlords, some of which have hung on, like grim death, for decades. This column has previously mentioned the omnipresence of “appropriate,” a word that now appears to mean nothing more than “I agree with it” or “He got away with it.” Thus the common police report: “Officer Jones took appropriate action.” Or the damning report that is fed to the newspapers when Officer Jones has visibly screwed up: “We are taking all legal measures to get at the truth about Officer Jones’s inappropriate actions.” (My advice: drill into it.)

All of this takes place under the banner of emotional correctness — a leading feature of socialist societies, where nothing is good or evil but only appropriate or inappropriate to its emotional surroundings. That’s the idea that must have inspired Joe Stack’s daughter, when she described his method of protest- ing against the IRS. Stack, as you’ll recall, set his home on fire, then flew an airplane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas. It was a peculiar, a very peculiar, thing to do. It was an evil thing to do, no matter what he was protesting. But the culprit’s daughter, who lives in Norway and has evidently caught the tone of the American social democracy as well, said that it was . . . “inappropriate.”

So much for Joe Stack and his daughter. I return to the life and descent of words. Like prominent political leaders, prominent phrases tend to have large, unruly families. Some of their descendants may even marry outside the Party. You’ll remember, a few years ago, when “on the back of” became popular in leftwing circles. It was continually being said that “Bush wants to balance his budget on the back of the American middle class,” “Boosh is waging his imperialism on the back of the peoples of the world,” “Boosh is conducting Satanic rituals on the back of starving inhabitants of Pitcairn Island,” and so forth. Then scions of “on the back of” began mating with scions of Republicans. So we got, “Obama wants to balance his budget on the back of the American middle class.” Now we’re seeing a new generation of the Back clan, and we find that it has grievously degenerated, as wealthy families almost always do. In his February 19 television program, Glenn Beck, the scourge of all things leftish, called upon his viewers to “break the back of the leech that’s on our back.”

All right; let’s see about this. Beck was referring to government schools and government-school unions. Fine. But picture a leech. If necessary, go to Wikipedia or someplace else and find out what leeches look like. Then picture a leech’s back. That’s hard, because leeches are sort of strange. Or maybe we humans are strange, and leeches are normal. Never mind. Picture a leech as if it had a back. Now picture “the leech that’s on our back.” That’s harder. Harder still is picturing us breaking the back of the leech that’s on our back. But this will give you an idea of what the Back family is today.

Did Beck come up with this nonsense himself? No — it’s all part of the collective illiteracy. When King mentioned “rugged collectivism,” he knew what he was talking about. (I was tempted to say, “He knew that of which he spoke,” but I resisted the temptation. Literacy isn’t actually the same as pomposity.) Let’s go to another example — the case of the Alabama professor who assassinated her colleagues because they wouldn’t give her tenure.

If you have a taste for black humor, look no further than this. But you’ll especially appreciate the prologue to the affair, in which the future professor shot and killed her own brother, but wasn’t prosecuted — wasn’t even booked — despite the fact that after wasting her brother she ran down the street with a gun and tried to make other people give her a getaway car. Years later, and after some further adventures in violent self-expression, from which she emerged scot-free, she shot her colleagues at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Thereafter the campus was locked down, as if it were a prison and the students and faculty were the offenders.

Days passed, and students returned to campus — to start issuing statements of a ruggedly collectivist character. Consider this news report of a campus interview: “‘I feel the campus has been pulled together, and I’ve seen more blue on campus than I’ve ever seen before,’ said [so and so, a student], referring to the school color.” Pulled together : yup, that’s the important thing, isn’t it — that we should all be brought together, or forced together, by threat of destruction. It’s an image that has long delighted the mass media, environmentalists, pacifists, science fiction writers, New Age religionists, and caring teachers throughout the land.

All right. I’ll drill a little deeper into this news report about the wreckage left by the crazy prof. It includes a number of charming phrases. It describes a business professor as saying that “he and colleagues decided during a staff meeting last week to begin the first day of class by offering students a chance to share their feelings about the shootings rather than diving right into academic lectures.” Good idea. Heaven forbid that academics should deliver academic lectures. Instead, they should invite their students to share their feelings. Where have we heard that before? Where haven’t we heard it?

But I wonder — what was supposed to happen in those “sharing” sessions? An evil professor slew her colleagues. What are the students supposed to say — “I’m glad she did it; I hate you all”? I don’t think those feelings would be welcomed, however authentic they might be. So what feelings would be welcomed, and there- fore shared? You already know: “I think it’s . . . uh . . . just too bad that . . . uh . . . someone would . . . uh . . . use a gun . . . uh . . . instead of . . . uh . . . getting, you know, help . . . “ Yes, when people share feelings like these, the grieving process proceeds and communities are healed. Getting students to share their feelings is so much more helpful than continuing with academic life as usual, thereby assuring students that the world isn’t controlled by mere emotion, barbarous or banal.

But wait! There’s more! The report continues: “A few campus police were on hand, but officials decided against a big show of force.” So here we must salute an expression that has long been a major general in the army of babble — show of force. A show of force is what happens when you object to rugged collectivism. But look it: what the hell were those cops supposed to be doing at the University of Alabama, Huntsville? Preventing another crazed biology professor from wasting her colleagues? If so, fine. But has “show of force” become so routine in our society — even in our academic society — that nobody pays any attention to the phrase itself? At Alabama, “officials decided against a big show of force.” Very nice of them. Otherwise, they might have muscled in on all those students who were intent on sharing their feelings.

One more quotation from the news item: “Counselors will be in every biology classroom as well as other classes in the Shelby Center and every classroom building on campus.” Damn! Is that creepy or what? It’s like Genesis 28, where God turns out to be everywhere. Or are counselors God today?

You decide. But it’s certain that their lingo has risen to the top. Be forewarned: it will appear in every classroom.

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