Ignoring the Indefinite

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Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
And smile, smile, smile.

I like that World War I song — the chorus, anyway; the verses are dreadful crap. Maybe it’s the tune that gets me, but there’s also some virtue in the sentiment: you can take all the bad things in your world, pack them away someplace, and forget about them. It just takes a little gumption, and a little common sense:

What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.

So let’s see how that idea applies to the worrying problems of words this column addresses. Let’s notice them, list them, and try to pack them away. Maybe they won’t return to afflict us. And if they do, maybe we will still be inspired to smile, smile, smile. No one can list all the atrocious words that assault our ears, but we can at least make a start.

As soon as you say “atrocious,” President Obama pops up, like a genie in a bottle, responding to the magic word. He’s an encyclopedia of verbal atrocities. The one I’m thinking about right now is around. I mean around as it’s used to discuss something considered to possess some decided relationship to something else, but never a relationship that’s decided enough to be definite. As with most of Obama’s words, around is good for the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach.

These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

On July 20, the president granted an interview about the Iran treaty (or whatever it is — that isn’t definite). He said: “There is broad international consensus around this issue.” If I wanted to go off on a tangent, I would observe that the lovely, broad-minded word international is an attempt to lead Obama’s listeners off on a tangent, and leave them there. Think about it. Who cares whether Albanians and Algerians are in favor of the treaty, or whether they’ve even heard of it? The question of whether they’ve reached a consensus on this point matters about as much as whether they, or the rest of the world, has reached a consensus about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, or common decency of any sort. (Actually, the world has reached a consensus: it’s ag’in all those things.) The issue is whether America will approve the treaty. Besides, consensus isn’t the same as authority, intellectual or political; it has nothing to do with justice or truth or even the actual will and volition of the people involved.

But I refuse to be led off on such a tangent. Around does not mean about, no matter how many ex-hippies use it in that way. An intellectually responsible person talks about something; a person with cloudy, slippery ideas talks around it, or tries to picture unknown numbers of internationals forming something called a consensus somewhere in its vicinity. Typical Clinton supporters, interviewed on television (why?), confess that they “agree with her around a lot of her major issues.” Hardcore agitators define their profession as “advocating around issues of healthcare and the environment and a living wage,” and usually a lot of other things, equally without a definition. But let’s just stow all their arounds in our old kit bag, and remove them from our memory. If there’s room, we can throw in advocate, whenever it lacks a direct object. We can put up with people who advocate something, even if it’s the reintroduction of wolf packs to the New York suburbs, but we can’t put up with people who just advocate around.

But oh, there’s a clever substitute for the indefinite around. It’s surround. Recently I discussed the violent behavior of some California cops who mercilessly beat and kicked a man they were arresting. Unfortunately for them, their actions were filmed from a news copter, and they got in trouble. An embarrassed sheriff announced that “the video surrounding this arrest is disturbing and I have ordered an internal investigation be conducted immediately.”What can I say? Try to picture a video surrounding an arrest. Disturbing? Oh yes. Positively stomach-churning. Throw that in the bag too.

(But don’t forget the case itself. For further developments, go here. Although the incident happened over three months ago, and the county immediately, immediately paid the victim off, “investigations” have yet to be resolved.)

Another symptom — perhaps the ugliest symptom — of the national demand for the indefinite, is the universality of the slash. I refer to that nasty little mark that unites (or is it separates?) the words in such repulsive combinations of sounds as “economic/political,” “racist/sexist,” “dinner/lunch,” “funeral director/mortician” — need I go on? I’ve brought this up before; I’m sorry to have to bring it up again.

That’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

There is a social history around that little mark. The slash first took root among us when computers came in. It carried the prestige of the brilliant minds who write code and sometimes, fatally, try to explain the results. Thence it became the language of bureaucrats, who actually plumed themselves on their ability to write, or rather type, stuff that looked like computer code. Soon, with unconscious irony, it became a sign of status among those alleged deadly enemies of the bureaucrats, the professors of humanities. They were infected with French deconstructionist theory, in which the slash was used to show the reversibility of certain words (“life/death”) that, like all words, have no inherent meaning. Then the agitprop profs and their gullible students decided that they too would write slashingly. This was accomplished by putting syllables together like kindergarten blocks and treating them as if they were the commanding heights of political thought — the “deformings/transformings,” “postgenders/transgenders,” and “neoliberalisms/postcolonialisms” of the pseudo-intellectual world. These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

Now, however, the slash may have reached its final reduction to absurdity. I’m looking at an AP report (May 25) about a bomb scare at the US Capitol. The author quotes an email sent by a police spokesman about things that might be bombs: "If we can't determine whether or not an item is safe/dangerous, we'd have to treat it as dangerous until we determine otherwise.” That’s the problem, isn’t it? So many things are safe/dangerous. And consider that phrase “whether or not.” It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

People use slashes because they don’t know/are too lazy to decide/make up their minds about/around what expressions/words they want to say/write/use. Let’s see . . . is something “racist” or “sexist”? Who cares? Just call it racist/sexist. Let the reader decide what you mean, if anything. One might spend a minute reflecting on the distinction between economics and politics, but why bother? Just say “economic/political.” And now we have “safe/dangerous.”

You guessed it: the same police spokesman mentioned “negative results” and “an abundance of caution.” (“Tell me, lieutenant, how much caution did you use?” “We used an abundance of caution.” “Oh, I see.”) So that’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

Am I being insensitive? I hope so, because otherwise I might spend most of my time reaching out. Until very recently, reach out had a definite meaning. It was something you did when you were in serious trouble or you thought someone else might be. “I was desperate, and I reached out for help.” “I’m so grateful she reached out to me.” “I heard he was in trouble, so I reached out.” Now it means anything from rescuing a drowning child to sending random emails. Sensitivity has spread that far.

Here’s a Fox News report (May 19) about the quest for Mrs. Clinton’s emails:“FoxNews.com has reached out to Clinton's office asking if the emails published by The New York Times reflect a similar situation.” You can read the article yourself to see whether you can figure out what it means by “a similar situation.” I couldn’t.

I concede that it’s always been hard to say anything definite about the things the Clintons do, except to say that the Clintons are probably lying about them. Nevertheless, the notion of FoxNews.com desperately reaching out to Clinton, Inc., would be risible, if any irony were intended. But it’s not. At present, reach out means so many things that it means nothing, and the harsh rule of irony is that it cannot function without a definite meaning someplace.

It’s possible that the more fanatically people are trained in the language of sensitivity, the less sensitive, the more cynical, they become. Their emails are constantly reaching out; their lips are always full of heartfelt thoughts and prayers for everyone involved insome terrible tragedy; but their hearts are in tune with that same old song:

Smile, boys — that’s the style.

They were taught to utter meaningless phrases; they utter them. How is that any different from politicians who talk by the hour about their insistence on transparency and their passion for the political process, without the slightest attempt to define their words?

Well, why shouldn’t you and I adopt the same style? What if the professors and the news writers and the police spokesmen and the heads of departments and the president of the United States speak in a language with the expressive power of those scratches on your kitchen floor? If they won’t define their meanings, why should we be so careful to look for them? Why shouldn’t we return a cynical smile? In the words of another good song,

Don’t take it serious—
It’s too mysterious.




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Words, Mindless Words

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An Allstate ad in a recent Wall Street Journal has set me to wondering whether vogue words in ordinary speech and political speech are examples of the same mindless imitation. “Allstate led the fight by advocating for national Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) standards.” But why the “for”?

Because that extra word, like “advocate” itself, has become the latest vogue. “Prior to” and “incredible” have long become so deeply entrenched that they hardly seem like vogues any more. “Thrust,” as in the “thrust” of a speech or a proposal, enjoyed a vogue some years ago; but it seems to have gone out of fashion.

Nowadays terms like “crumbling infrastructure,” “climate change” (the currently more voguish term for “global warming”), “big corporations,” corporate and individual “greed,” the “1%” and “99%," “fair share,” “shipping jobs overseas,” “obesity epidemic,” and miscellaneous “crises” crop up everywhere. Often they carry policy implications. I wonder whether they betray the same mindlessness as “advocate for.”




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