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 qualified 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, unfortunately, 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.

— indicating that he usually isn’t honest at all, and thus strongly suggesting that there’s no reason for you to believe that he’s going to start being honest today.

By now, there probably isn’t a bureaucrat or politician in the country who hasn’t promised complete transparency in his own dealings or bitterly lamented its absence in others’. Obviously, somebody’s not being transparent. And what exactly does “trans- parent” signify? One way of judging the value of an expression is to see whether you can visualize its meaning. If somebody tells you, as many small charitable organizations do, “Our books are open for inspection; stop in at our office any business day between 9 and 4,” you can visualize yourself showing up and looking through the columns of figures. But if somebody tells you, “Our organization is fully transparent,” what are you supposed to make of that? If he wanted you to understand it, why would he put it that way?

Besides, do you really want anybody’s affairs to be fully trans- parent? What I picture when I hear that word is somebody living in a building with clear plastic walls, even for the bathrooms. And look. If you’re a politician, I don’t want to know all the silly things you do and say. I don’t want to take my time to watch you through your plastic walls. I don’t care to listen while you tell your chief of staff, “I’m really not in favor of repealing the drug laws, but I guess I’ll have to vote for repeal, because Cox will attack me in Liberty
if I don’t.” All I want you to do is repeal the drug laws. And I’m

well aware that you may not be able to do that if your dealings are fully transparent. “Transparency” is therefore at the bottom of my agenda.

Well, maybe not right at the bottom. There are even worse cliches. I’m thinking, for instance, about “It’s for the children!”, the slogan of all people who want to raise taxes. This is one of a group of political cliches that includes “family values,” “diversity,” and “revenue enhancement” (a phrase synonymous with “taxes”). These cliches emanate from various circles, but I think of them all as members of the Obama class, because Obama’s distinguishing political characteristic, like that of Bush, is to persevere in counterproductive causes. He’ll keep maintaining that his “stimulus” plans are “growing” the economy and “creatin’ jobs for all Americans” until his last day in office, and that will keep the associated cliches alive.

There’s another class of cliches that Obama uses but that bears the name of a much more important man. I refer to the Orwellian cliche, the political cliche that means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. Thus, “freedom” means slavery, “truth” means propaganda. For Obama (as for most politicians — why should
he get all the credit?), “invest in America” is a good way of saying “give me all your money, and I’ll throw it down a rathole.” For him, “dialogue” means “listen to me”; and “comprehensive reform,” as in “comprehensive immigration reform,” means “keeping me in power” by “creating a path to citizenship” for people likely to vote Democratic.

Like “MOU,” “path” is one of those cliches that emerged from a bureaucratic context, appearing to challenge it but actually reinforcing it. The idea is that modern bureaucratic life is
so complicated that “paths” need to be laid out for the people blundering through it. They’re like Dante’s pilgrim, trying to get out of the wilderness of this world, except that their divinely appointed guides aren’t Virgil and Beatrice; they’re the bureaucrats themselves, topped by the Great and Wonderful Bureaucrat of Oz, Barack Obama; and of course the pilgrims never do get out. If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t trust Obama to plot my path to citizenship, or anywhere else. Be that as it may, I think we’ve heard more than enough of “comprehensive” — though we’re certain to hear more of it throughout his tenure.

Well, this is a good, though decidedly pessimistic, place to end, but I have to mention two cliches that mean absolutely nothing, yet have stuck themselves to 2010 like pieces of gum adhering to a busy person’s shoe. The words are “green” and “sustainable.” Ecological cliches are always lies. I mean, why is milk from Safeway less “organic” than milk from Whole Foods? It’s all just cow juice, and if you don’t keep your “organic” milk in the fridge, it will soon prove to your nostrils how very organic it is. I know that different things are done in feeding the cows or something, but why don’t they find an expression that says that?

“Green” goes several steps farther. To me, a “green job” is cutting down trees so that people can make houses out of them. Literally, there’s nothing greener than heaving a wad of paper or a past-prime sandwich out of your car window, so it can rot by the side of the road. I don’t like that behavior, but don’t tell me that it’s “greener” to hire a bunch of losers to pick up the refuse and let it rot, if it can, in a landfill, instead of the lovely median strip of I-75.

“Sustainable”? Let me tell you about “sustainable.” The cafeteria at my college decided to start winning “sustainability” awards. Its method was to forbid all plastic cups, saucers, wraps, etc. Also virtually everything made of paper. Only “sustainable” stuff was allowed — metal utensils and ceramic dishes.

Sustainable? Why? What was sustaining what, and for what purpose? If one wanted to take food out, which most people do, one had to take out the metal and ceramic as well. And that’s what people did, although it’s pretty hard to carry a ceramic bowl of
hot soup across campus without a plastic cover, unless you don’t mind getting medical bills. It didn’t occur to anyone that all the artifacts of human sustainability that were taken from the cafeteria, hundreds a day, cost energy to produce. If they were returned, they cost energy to wash. If they were kept in offices or dorm rooms,
or simply thrown away, it took more energy to replace them. Was that “sustainability”?

You tell me. And send me your own reports from the front — you’ve probably seen more sustainability than I have.

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