Word Watch – October 2010

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Cliches: you can’t live with ’em, and you can’t live without ’em.

That’s a cliche, too. But some cliches have earned their right to exist. Think of all those expressions in the “too” series: “Too clever by half,” “Too good to be true,” “Too smart for his own good,” “Too big for his britches,” and so forth. And I can’t imagine a world in which I wouldn’t be able to respond to a difference of opinion by remarking, “That’s what makes horse races.”

The fact that many people fail to understand me when I produce that old chestnut only means that some cliches ought to be revived. When was the last time you heard “Who’s going to bell the cat”? But nothing could be more useful than that expression for those meetings when somebody finally has to be chosen to do something hard — in current parlance, to “take one for the team.”

Of course, even useful cliches should be employed sparingly. And there are a lot of cliches that have no business existing in the first place.

I’ve just been looking at a news report about the American geologist whom the Chinese communists (the Chicoms, to revive a good old cliche) tortured and sentenced to eight years in prison for “endanger[ing] our country’s national security.” The Associated Press described the victim as “a meticulous, driven researcher.” “Meticulous” has never become a cliche, but “driven” now has. This summer, I even heard it in an ad for somebody running for Congress on the Republican ticket. This man is considered quali- fied because he is “driven.”

Clearly, there’s something unhealthy going on here. Until 2010, “driven” was never used in a morally complimentary sense.

To call someone “driven” meant that he or she was a fanatic or borderline lunatic. It appeared in such expressions as “driven to commit crimes,” “driven by his lust for alcohol,” “driven by his political agenda,” and “driven by his demons.” Now, somehow, it’s supposed to mean something good.

Why? Maybe it’s because of the rough economic times we live in. Many people work two jobs, and many others work hard just to find work. So now it’s an honorable thing to be “driven.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Actually, it makes good people look like cows or horses, and it transforms fanatics into angels of light.

But “driven” will continue to increase and multiply. So, unfor- tunately, will “MOU.” No, that’s not the sound that a cow makes; the thing is pronounced “em-oh-you,” and it means “memo of understanding.” You’re lucky if you haven’t heard it already; but now your luck has run out.

Before this summer started, I heard it only in connection with contracts between unions and my university. An MOU specified, sometimes in great detail, the practical effects of a contract. By late May, however, I was forced to listen to those three deadly syllables at every meeting I attended. Somebody would be talking about how the department of economics had worked out a new course in conjunction with the department of mathematics, and somebody else would ask, “Have they finished their MOU?” Then people would open the question of whether X committee had worked out an MOU with Y committee, and whether the vice chancellor’s old MOU had yielded to a new MOU, and soon there was nothing but a chorus of MOUs.

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