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Monday, July 09, 2007

Very latest round of cliches places thinking at risk

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Ever evolving, language sometimes brings forth an ugly mutant. Words or phrases that at first sound clever, inventive or insightful soon enter the vocabulary of every dullard, stocking the ever-expanding universe of cliches. Sadly, there are no black holes to suck them into oblivion. We can't pass a law against language abuse -- nor should we -- so our only weapon against this onslaught is scorn. So, let's get to it:

Very latest. TV news operations think that by putting "very" in front of "latest" we'll think that we're getting something later than merely the latest. As in: "Now we go to Frank Frake, who's on the scene for the very latest." As if we'd turn to another station if Frank were going to give us only the latest, without the very. Likewise, the 10 p.m. news tells us to tune in at 5 a.m. tomorrow for the very latest when the latest hasn't happened yet. Is there a lesser degree of latest, short of the very latest, such as kind-of-the-latest, or the penultimate latest? In truth, there's no very latest. It's either the latest or it's not. It's like saying, "very unique" or "very pregnant." It's very aggravating.

Place at risk. Or "put at risk," as if there's a spot for risk on the bureau or kitchen counter. Risk is not an object that has a location. Yet, the placing of risk has become a scourge. What is the compulsion to use a clumsy, refried phrase in place of efficient, sharper words? Endanger. Jeopardize. Threaten. As in, "this constant use of placing at risk threatens my sanity." It has been embraced by an entire generation of journalists who apparently were never taught anything about an economy of words or read the venerable "Elements of Style." Or who want to sound like superior academic types, whence the risk placing came.

Nuanced. This headache-starter could have been created by political and media elitists who want to impress us with their understanding of complex issues -- stuff that the rest of us couldn't begin to get. Notice that the use of "nuance" is rarely followed by an elucidation of the subtleties, suggesting that the speaker himself may not really understand. Or perhaps that it's all just a bunch of gobbledygook anyway. Used in a sentence: "Al Gore's explanation for global warming is more nuanced than that of that idiot, Bush." Bush, who is credited with being as nuanced as an unpainted canvas, turned the tables on his 2004 presidential opponent U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by saying the Democrat's position on Iraq was "nuanced." Bush was cleverly mocking Kerry for not having a position, but, of course, Democrats didn't get it.

Snarky. Thank the Internet for this one, which often is deployed by dullards to feel like they've come up with a clever insult. Gag.

Grace note. Usually meant as a compliment, such as: "He ended his speech on a grace note," suggesting that the closing remarks were "gracious." It doesn't. It's a musical note that is added as lilting embellishment or ornament, played quickly, "printed in small type, and not counted in the rhythm." Would it be ungracious to suggest that the constant misuse of "grace note" reveals ignorance?

Within 3. Or 2, 1 or whatever. As when the TV announcer says the Bulls, having made a basket, have made the score 75-72 and now "have pulled to within" 3 points. No, "within 3" would be something less than 3, such as 2.95. I guess it's too difficult to simply say, "The Bulls have pulled to 3 points behind."

Change. Not the stuff that slips out of your pocket and between the cushions on the couch. This is the stuff, any stuff, that you're for if you are progressive. Here's U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recently on the subject: "We are [cliche warning] striking a chord and I think people have confidence that maybe we can [cliche warning] bridge some of those divides in this country. That's what it's going to take to bring about [cliche warning] significant, real change. Change can't [cliche warning] just be a slogan. Change has to be something that is demonstrated day-to-day on an [cliche warning] ongoing basis." Barack, either change your speechwriters or tell us what change you have in mind.

It's (all) about. My lambasting this most hackneyed phrase a decade ago was about useless.

The election is still a year away, but already the candidates are boasting that their campaigns are "about" honesty or some other virtue and that their legislation is "about the children."

It's about enough already.


mmarzec said...

I enjoyed your column in today's Trib. Here's another you may wish to use next time: "begging the question." In the past several years, people have begun using the phrase to mean "raising the question," when it means, of course, using a premise which isn't granted, usually ending in a circular argument. I've even heard TV reporters incorrectly using this expression!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Byrne: Thanks for your column in today's Tribune. As you said, language is always subject to abuse. There is one usage that is almost will find it in the sayings of educated people, and that is the phrase try and rather than try to.
Example: We shall try and show a profit next year. The speaker really means: We shall attempt to show a profit next year. By using "try and" it could be inferred that there will be a profit.
I try and explain this to people, but they don't listen.
Jim Schaefer
Mount Prospect

ahoytom said...

Here are my linguistic peeves.

"The victims have been taken to AREA hospitals". Area meaning local. Because obviouly we need assurance they were't take to Des Moines.

"Westbbound traffic is still slow due to an EARLIER accident." Not an early accident, nor the earliest, nor, to be sure, a later accident.

"The accident in the westbound lanes has eastbound traffic slowed due to a GAPERS' block." Picture me mouth agape, drooling, eyes glazed, behaving stupidly, because I'm responding to emergency lights and vehicles, or to plain human curiousity, or because the cars in front of me have slowed. It's a gratuitous but routine insult.

Kevin L Morris said...

Dennis, Dennis...always the jester:

I rarely bother to take your column too seriously. I usually place them in the angry-white-male-suburban-neo-con category. However, today I am finally giving in to my lesser nature. I guess I just can't help myself. May God forgive me.

The first time I almost wrote to you was when you blamed the Catholic church sexual abuse crisis on gays in the church. For the sake of nuance, there is a huge difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. In fact, "The majority of reported acts of sexual abuse of children are not committed by pedophiles," but by men in relationships with adult women and men, said John Money, of Johns Hopkins, a preeminent expert on sexual abnormalities...In other words, there may be nothing fundamental about a person that makes him a "pedophile."

This would be nuance. See where we're going with this?

Regarding the current occupant of The White House, his lack of nuance has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents and thousands of U.S. servicemen and women. Please allow me this indulgence: Prime Minister Al-Maliki is Shi'a Muslim, Iran is Shi'a Muslim. Yet we wonder why Iran is involved in Iraq. Well, to make it simple, the nuance is that we helped install an "enemy" sympathizer (you may also reference the Cuban missile crisis on how nations respond to the presence of military buildups on their borders).

Anyway, I regress.

Another interesting nuance is we have chosen to arm and fund the Sunni militias, who, incidentally, are responsible for death squads and tend to be wahabbists loyal to Al Qaeda. Funny huh? So in an indirect, nuanced sort of way, we may just be funding the very people who attacked us.

I could do this all night but I trust you see my point. It comes as no surprise to me that gentlemen such as yourself, Charles Krauthammer, and Jonah Goldberg would be quite happy in a world without nuance. The problem is, those of us who care about our country and one another, not just the futures markets, stock portfolios, and our individual net worth, simply couldn't live without it.

See? There are many of us out here who can back up "nuance" with facts. Feel free to let me know if you would like a few more.

Kevin L. Morris
Streator, Illinois

tartagnus said...

Dear Mr. Byrne,

Thank you for your column. It was most refreshing. As for "Within 3" you've delineated another pet peeve of mine, though you inadvertently brought up another: the split infinitive.

In any case, please continue to use the Trib space you're given in such productive and informative ways until we're dechronolyzed.


James Wilson
Chicago, Illinois