January 3, 2008

Shedding the Dead Skin of Language

Robert Fulford had a column [Nat Post Dec 31 '07] concerning the tendency for buzzwords to crowd into spoken and written language, pushing thought clear out of the picture. The main targets he had in his sights were 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', and I thought he was right about both. I liked the phrase 'paradigm shift' when I first heard it, because if you excavate far enough back to its earliest uses, it has a clear meaning that can't be expressed with equal succinctness otherwise. But when people start talking about the paradigm shift in their thinking that has led to buying coffee at Starbucks instead of Tim Horton's, or vice versa, it's time to call a halt. And if you've got a phrase like 'carbon footprint' that can be easily and righteously slotted into sentences because it's become ubiquitous, you tend to write sentences that much more mechanically. My only complaint with this part of his thesis is that he doesn't go far enough. I don't mean he doesn't comprehensively list the deadassed words and boxcar phrases that choke and clot commentary pieces of all descriptions--how could you list more than a small fraction of them in a column of only eight hundred words? But if we're going after ubiquitous expressions that convey a glow of unearned righteousness to a sentence while at the same time stifling the possibility that it might contain solid meaning, I can think of at least two, far more prevalent than 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift' , that are equally worthy of ruthless excision. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Fulford concludes this piece by complaining about big words, which strikes me as off the point he's been making--neither 'carbon', 'footprint' nor 'shift' is a conspicuously big word, and 'paradigm' is only three syllables unless you pronounce it wrong. I also don't see where the use of small words invariably leads to clarity. There are no big words in the phrase 'do your own thing', but if it has ever been used to express a lucid notion, I can't recollect when that was.

Neither are big words invariably more obscure than the itsy bitsy ones. I'm pretty sure you could convey what's meant by translucent in words of one or two syllables--but such a lot of them! And odds are in the thicket of words you'd need to convey it, the meaning would not be clarified but considerably obscured. What chiefly makes for clear writing is thought, and it's easily possible to think very little and yet use very tiny words.

So what recurrent buzzwords would I retire, along with 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', at least until people are prepared to use them thoughtfully and honestly? 'Terrorist' and 'coward' (and all their variant forms). At the very least I'd insist people not lead with these, drop the 't' word, the 'c' word or the ever popular 'c-t' combination in the first sentence of a think piece to colour all that follows. Give us a little evidence first, to back up the clamouring insistence of your jerking knee. But if the evidence is there, what exactly do you gain by affixing the gummy label? Do you seriously think the average thoughtful person anywhere in the world is going to read an accurate account of a suicide bombing that claims from 12 to 72 lives and think this is a noble act if not rigorously prompted from the wings: "Hey! heads up there--cowardly terrorists." Do you seriously think anybody who does think it's a noble act is going to be suddenly stricken with conscience when attacked by the label? You know perfectly well it's far likelier they'll feel glamorized by the distinction (and snicker gleefully at the grotesque misuse of the word 'cowardly').

'Cowardly terrorist'--the only one-two rhetorical punch I can recall that matches this one was the phrase used by Communist and Trostkyist radicals in my university days over anything at all that got up their noses--'fascist, racist'. They were a little more single-minded--they never used one word without the other for reinforcement. I once helpfully suggested that they merge the two into one word, 'fracist'. The suggestion was not well received. Shall we update it? 'Cowartryst'? It's a thought.

Anyone who thinks 'cowartryst' is a less dangerous compound than 'carfonbootprint' ought, in conscience, to ask Maher Arar's opinion, or that of the likely hundred similar innocents still in the rendition cycle in Syria or points east. I suppose we can congratulate ourselves that we rescued him at last, after unconscionable delay--but if we hadn't shipped him off as a cowartryst on essentially no evidence, and ignored the evidence in his favour until it was possible to ignore it no longer, we would have saved ourselves the trouble of redeeming a great injustice by not committing it in the first place. It's amazing how wise a plan that seems in retrospect. The only reason it didn't at the time was that 'coward' and 'terrorist' lay over all our thought like a security blanket we could collectively shiver under. If we don't cower like rats in holes, fearful of shadows and the smoke in our minds of imaginary poisons, the nasty, ugly, cowardly terrorists will have won. Could we all just grow up a little please?

There's one very good reason to avoid buzzwords like 'cowartryst' and 'carfonbootprint' as far as humanly possible--they grossly impede our ability to think. There's a reason they recur with the frequency of addictions--they relieve us of the obligation to think. No committed democrat can have any excuse for succumbing to that addiction, because none of the world's tyrannies, the external forces we are constantly being urged to cower back from in terror, has anything like the force required to unseat any of the world's democracies. Tyrannical forces within democracy are powerful enough to unseat it, but only if we thoughtlessly succumb to their agendas. So let's try and do without the buzzwords that urge us to surrender our freedoms in exchange for the chatter of fear and trembling in the night--shall we?

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Ned Anson said...

The danger of buzzwords goes beyond impeding our ability to think. Their use corners us into thinking a particular way. A spoken or written sentence is a literal line of thought. Buzzword or cliché laced sentences betray the paucity of independent and original thinking by the utterer. When we incorporate these devices into our own expressions, in either a misguided attempt to bond with the reader by use of the familiar phrase or out of an unforgivable laziness, and we do so often enough, these devices become part of our own thought processes. We begin to think in particular ways, ways crafted by such words and phrases.

It is no accident that with the prevalence of buzzwords used by politicians and political pundits centering on fear and bombarding our senses with their withering attacks that we, too, start thinking that way, and become frozen by our fears, real or imagined, instead of embracing our freedom and others.

Martin Heavisides said...

I was thinking of doing a piece called 'words words words' that was nothing but cliche words and phrases--"that rare thing", "naysayers (see under 'proved wrong')", maybe five hundred words' worth of that ilk, but the first few I set down left me so dispirited I abandoned the project. Attacking them is something I can do with energy and passion and, I hope, wit; cataloguing them is a life-draining experience. It must be dreadful living with nothing but them in the clots and tangles of one's brain. Originality is a hard target to hit, always moving, always mutating, but the trendy prisons of language people submit to in order to dodge the rigours of originality are fifty times harder.

Ned Anson said...

Somewhere on an old defunct PC of mine lying in an unmarked landfill in the middle of nowhere, is a file titled Plagiarist.doc. In that file is a rather large collection of well known expressions by equally well known personages. Things like: ask not what your country can do for you, nothing to fear but fear itself, etc. along with other expressions of unknown origin, like: between you and me and the fencepost, another day another dollar, and so on.

The idea was to use only these expressions to write a story, and show how restricting speaking and thinking like this really is. Even the characters actions would be cliched.

Alas, the PC "passed away" "before its time", accompanied by a noise I hope I never hear again.

Now that you bring this subject up, perhaps I will revive the project. Or perhaps not. It's anyone's guess.

Martin Heavisides said...

Whether a particular expression is living or not seems to depend on context to a certain extent. The most brilliant professor I knew in my University days told me he did a class on the proverbial sayings embedded in the text of Fanny Hill. He said what they quickly noticed was that quoted all by themselves these statements seemed banal and obvious. Quoted in context they were lively and precise responses to experience. I can think of at least two instances of the same thing in Dylan's lyrics: 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' and 'I Threw it All Away'.