About this much, surely, we can all agree: At the end of the day, given that life is a journey, and considering everything that each of us brings to the table, at a minimum we need a level playing field going forward.
If you found yourself nodding along to that last paragraph, either you are a ninny, or, more likely, you have been listening to way too much inevitably vacuous talk from politicians and punditi on television, and you have become slightly punchy.
Life isn’t a journey any more than a journey is life. Why at the end of the day, and not the beginning? Where exactly is this table, of what is it made, and mustn’t it be groaning under the weight of everything that so many people seem persistently to be bringing to it? As for that level playing field, grass or AstroTurf? No one bothers to say. That is probably because they are too damn busy going forward, ceaselessly forward, ever forward.
Politicians, with their habitual verbosity, under the constraint of an interviewer’s questions, find these clichés useful in filling the gaps in their nonthinking. Our current president, say this for him, does not indulge in current clichés. Instead he falls back on older ones, long outworn. The old boy turns out to be quite as insensitive to language as he is to human beings—maybe even a touch more.
The linguist John McWhorter has characterized Donald Trump’s speech as “unadorned,” saying that “this is what language was undoubtedly like when it first emerged among people who didn’t have writing.” Mr. Trump lauds his appointees for doing “incredible” jobs, until he fires them. Those he pretends to like are “special, special people,” and special people, you may have noticed, tend to be “tremendous.” As will be the results of all his executive orders and proposed legislation, “tremendous, believe me.” He uses the word “special” more than Hallmark Cards.
Another form of degraded language much in current evidence is what I think of as word climbing, the linguistic equivalent of social climbing. Just as the parvenu tries to elevate himself into a higher social realm, the word climber wishes to seem more intelligent than he actually is. He uses words or phrases that are unnecessary or obfuscatory but that he believes make him sound thoughtful. Perhaps the most common of such phrases is the academic “in terms of.” It pops up everywhere—in terms of justice, economics, sales, spumoni, you name it—and is required nowhere. Am I on a tirade here? In terms of rage, I’d say almost.
Another form of word climbing is mistaking and thereby misusing words owing to their mere sound, and thereby lapsing into malapropism—this to give the impression of cultivation and intellectual penetration. Malapropisms take their name from the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop says such things as, “promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory,” and, “Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” The Kingfish, on the old “Amos ’n’ Andy” radio show, nicely played malapropisms for laughs. “Sapphire’s been galvanizing round town with this here John,” is one example I recall. Another is, “You know, Andy, I ain’t exactly no Jeff Chandelier.”
There are malaprops that not many people know are malaprops. An example that pops up frequently is the phrase “begs the question,” which most pols and pundits use to mean “strongly suggests another question,” when in fact “begs the question” is a technical philosophical term meaning that an argument’s premises dictate its conclusion. In other words, begging the question is a form of circular reasoning. Beg no questions, is my advice.
One of the most common word-climbing terms in use today is “culture.” Losing sports teams, we hear all too often, have to change their culture. So, too, corporations in financial difficulties; their culture is the problem—they need to change the damn thing. Same of course goes for sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media and Congress. These institutions, the scenes and sites of so much harassment, have to change their culture, no question about it.
The dandy thing about calling for a change in culture is that it gives the speaker a feeling of subtlety, if not profundity, while simultaneously allowing him to avoid really talking about the problem and its solution. What’s truly needed is for the coaches and owners of losing sports teams to kick some butt, for corporations to do some selective firing, and for sexual harassers to be properly exposed for the swine they are. After that, if they can perhaps find a free moment, let them talk all they want about changing cultures.
Words, as the saying goes, are cheap, but never cheaper than when used to replace thought.