This column ordinarily watches a single type of verbal problem, but sometimes there are just too many problems. One is spotted — then another pops up. Readers spot them too, and want something to be done about them, pronto.
So, in response to popular alarm about the verbal invasions coming in from every point of the compass, this Word Watch will attack as many of them as humanly possible.
Let’s start with a quotation sent in by one of our best word spotters, Carl Isackson. It’s a passage from Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, on the subject of swine flu: “This pandemic has turned out to be much more fortunate than what we feared a little over a year ago.”
Well, if we’re going to have a “pandemic,” let us have a “fortunate” one.
Carl considered the excuse that Chan was born in Hong Kong and may not be a native English speaker, but he didn’t think that was good enough. After all, native speakers say Chan-like things all the time. For instance, we are constantly “making problems better,” aren’t we? The issue isn’t where you were born, but whether you have any sense.
Here’s a phrase spotted by a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. It’s from a corporate memo – although, these days,
it could have been derived from anything. The memo refers to “a quagmire of things converging.” My friend comments: “The mental image I produced was of what I assume Swamp Thing would look like when having sex. While very drunk.”
Common speech and writing are now full of things going bump in the night. Here’s another sample, unearthed from an
after-dinner speech that someone thought worthy to be immortalized on the internet. The speaker is complimenting a colleague, claiming that the organization to which both of them are stuck, like bugs on flypaper, “is very lucky to have hit a time nexus where our needs and her ability and availability have collided.” The anonymous friend who commented on this one exclaims: “Thank God no one was hurt! It could have been a black hole. Maybe aliens were involved.”
Why are people drawn to these weird spatial images? The friend just quoted suggests the influence of science fiction. But perhaps what we’re reading is merely the language appropriate to life in a modern office. Lost in the bureaucratic fog of war, no one really knows what’s going on; it’s all nexuses passing in the night. But when “converge” becomes “collide,” it’s time to look for the light switch.
And here’s something that I found myself. It illustrates another, growing category of verbal mayhem, and it comes from an AP account (July 25) of the disaster that took place at the Love Parade concert at Duisberg, Germany. It’s intended to answer everybody’s question, “What the hell is Duisberg, Germany?”, and it goes like this:
“Duisburg is a city of 500,000 in western Germany’s highly industrialized Ruhr region known for its coal mining and steel production. The region’s economy has declined in recent years and it has been trying to bolster its image on the cultural scene. The entire Ruhr region is the European capital of culture in 2010.”
I won’t worry about the difficulty of imagining a “bolster” pushing up an “image,” perhaps to keep it from falling out of bed, like the bolster that my mom put on my own bed when I was small. Notice, however, that before you bolster something, you’ve already got to have it. What was Duisberg’s image on the cultural scene before people started to bolster it? I guess I missed the whole thing. Maybe you did too. So the answer is kindly supplied: “The entire Ruhr region is the European capital of culture in 2010.”
I don’t want to know how this designation was awarded, or who awarded it. I refuse to look it up. It’s just too silly. The silliness, indeed, is the interesting part. Everything about that last quoted sentence is hilarious. Whoever heard of a capital of culture? Whoever heard of an “entire region” (let alone the Ruhr!) being the capital of anything? And whoever heard of capitals changing year by year? Try this: “The Vienna region is the European capital of culture in 2010.” See, it doesn’t even work for Wien. Now try it for Youngstown, Ohio, which I take to be the American equivalent of Duisberg: “The entire northeastern Ohio region is the North American capital of culture in 2010.” Ha. Ha. Ha, ha, ha.
How could anybody get this silly? My theory is that virtu-
ally all individual people now have resumes, padded with cheap euphemisms and bizarre awards — so why not cities? Why not regions? The Ruhr’s moniker as “capital of culture” is simply the geographical equivalent of “Second Runner Up: The County-Wide Peer-Relations and Positivity Award, Council of Inter-Government Liaison Staff (2010).”
Hmmm . . . I see a theme emerging here. Something about bureaucratic words, bureaucratic systems . . .
No, let’s move on to something else. Mehmet Karayel asks
in despair, “Why do people insist on saying, ‘He was traveling at a high rate of speed’?” My answer is, I don’t know. Obviously, a high rate of speed is nothing more than a high speed. And “rate of ” is funky in itself. I understand “rate of exchange,” “rate of acceptance,” and “rate of failure,” but speed has nothing to do with discounts, odds, or percentages. Either you’re going fast or you’re not.
But look, Mehmet, I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know why high-class authors say that “the colonists were fewer in number than the Indians.” How else could they be “fewer”? Could they be fewer in space or fewer in time? Neither do I know why people refer to “my other co-workers, who work with me.” Or why they talk about “sharing a meal in common.” And I can’t imagine why people discuss “my friend Kenny, and this other girl he works with.” Maybe it’s because they assume that the more words you stuff into a sentence, the clearer it’s going to be. But no, it doesn’t work that way.
Speeding along at a high rate of speed . . . there’s an omnipresent TV ad, contrasting one phone company with another, in which dissatisfied customers of Company B are shown denouncing their “enormous, humongous” bills. So bills exist that are enormous but not humongous? And we must be careful to stipulate that some of them are both?
Analogously (now, how often have you seen that word as a transition — eh?), a distinguished scholar, W. Bruce Lincoln, writing the history of Nicholas I of Russia, mentions “the destructive termites of change [that] were gnawing at the underpinnings of the Nicholas system.” Apparently there are termites that are not destructive – termites that build houses, rather than destroying them; and we must be careful to distinguish the bad termites from the good ones. Well, good. I’d like my termites to be building me a new room.
Unfortunately, what that example indicates is that the distinction between high verbal culture and low verbal culture is practically nonexistent, and has been for a long time. Lincoln’s book was published in 1978.
On to the land of politics, where everything has at least two names, none of them the right one. The tendency to rename things is even more prevalent on the Left than it is on the Right — I suspect because Americans are more likely to be right-wingers than left-wingers, so it’s the left-wingers who have the most reason to disguise themselves. Hence, the president is said to have been
a “community organizer” — meaning left-wing activist, which is what he was, but it doesn’t sound as good. Many of his friends are “healthcare advocates,” “poverty advocates,” and “environmental advocates” — in plain terms, left-wing activists. Odd, isn’t it, that a healthcare advocate is one who advocates doing something for healthcare, and an environmental advocate is one who advocates doing something for the environment, but a poverty advocate is not supposed to be one who advocates doing something for poverty? Yet that’s the one case in which the title fits.
Along these lines, more or less, consider the headline of a Yahoo! news report on the federal bailout of teachers and other unionized people, passed by the House of Representatives in
early August: “House passes bill to help teachers, public workers.” “Public workers”? You mean government employees? Yes, that’s what you mean. But “public” sounds so much better than “government,” doesn’t it?
From a libertarian point of view, that renaming may actu-
ally be a good thing. It shows that even among the supporters of government, it’s still embarrassing to label yourself with that word “government.” Good, but maybe not quite good enough . . .
Another term for government employees — certain kinds of them — has surfaced amid Congress’s mad attempts to bribe everyone in sight. It’s a new name for cops and firemen: “first responders,” as in “House votes funds for first responders.”
This is enough to make any honest person shudder. It’s like talking about dead people as “loved ones.” Yes, I agree that if you’re in trouble, the first person who reacts to your plight — after you notice that your heartbeat has become irregular, and you complain to your friend or spouse, and your friend or spouse calls 911, and the 911 person calls a fireman or some other rescue worker — can be called a “first responder.” And in the same way, a minister can be listed in the phone book as a “soul saver,” and a mother can be called a “child helper.” Is this the smarmy stuff we want to see? Are normal people and normal job titles assumed to be worthless, so that their worthlessness needs to be disguised by phony names?
Time for another issue. Readers of Word Watch never stop complaining about the the ritual adjective “alleged.” And it’s not just you all who complain. Virtually everyone has had enough of Stalin being called “the alleged murderer of tens of millions.” Enough already! He did it! Case closed!
But the universal disgust with “alleged” hasn’t hurt its career. It’s become like one of those alleged celebrities (there, I used the word correctly) whom nobody likes except the media: you can’t get rid of it. It has lodged itself so firmly in our secular liturgy that the following headline is possible: “Panel hits Rangel with 13 alleged ethics charges” (AP, July 29). Quick! Tell the congressman not to worry; those charges are only alleged.
But what are the students up to now? Up to no good, it seems. Jo Ann Skousen, a professional word spotter, wrote in a while ago to say, “ ‘Huge’ is a huge problem for my students, and it gives
me a huge headache.” She also mentioned huge problems with “incredible.” Naturally she would, because she is one of those odd people who think that words have meanings, and that the meaning of “incredible” is exactly that: not credible, not believable — in short, the opposite of “really, really good,” which is what most Americans seem to think it means.
The problem with “huge” isn’t quite the same. People aren’t forgetting what it means; they’re forgetting to ask themselves what picture it paints. “Huge” is ordinarily deployed in a complimentary way, but I find it hard to feel complimented when a student fills out a survey about my class and claims that “this prof is huge.” I want to write back and inform my admirer that I weigh only 160 pounds. A huger problem is simply the overuse of words like this. Every generation overuses its “colorful” slang terms, but that doesn’t make them colorful. Once such a word as “huge” (or, before it, “cool”) gets loose, it behaves like an alligator in a duck pond; it soon annihilates all other forms of life.
And that’s a good reason to object to the bureaucrats’ favorite pair of terms, “negative” and “positive” (“I was negative about
his presentation, but my boss was positive”). Just consider all the things that “negative” could mean: unhappy, disgusted, confused, disappointed, angry, outraged, or just mildly dissatisfied. You
can expand the list as far as you want; “negative” obliterates every
alternative concept, every shade of meaning, just as “positive” obliterates all the shades between “ecstatic” and “somewhat favorably impressed.”
I can understand the bureaucrat’s desire to obscure meaning, but most people who use “negative” and “positive” are trying to express strong emotions, which are the antithesis of obscurity. When someone says that the president’s stimulus plan “had a negative impact,” he or she wants to communicate something like “disastrous effects”; but somehow, the availability of “negative” and that other default term, “impact,” banished all possible alternatives.
Yet there are worse things than “impact,” worse things even than “huge.” “Sweet” is worse. Fad words can spread downward, from older people to younger people (example: “negative”), or they can spread upward (“huge”). “Sweet” started somewhere in junior high school and has now floated upward into the minds of old guys over 40. It’s disconcerting to hear your doctor call the inside of your colon “sweet.” If he called it “huge,” that would seem a little goofy, but “sweet” makes emotional demands that “huge” never thought of. Is this quack asking for a kiss, or what?
Even references to a “sweet” computer program strike me as unduly intimate. Am I a prude?
A special note: As explained in the Editor’s Introduction to this issue, Liberty will continue online after its next, and last, print issue. Word Watch will continue with it.