Garden of words overgrown with weeds

“[Dr. Samuel] Johnson meant his dictionary to be a law book asserting how words ought to be used. His purpose was to ‘purify’ English… While Johnson did not deny that language changes, he left no doubt that he was against its doing so, and his dictionary was, in effect, a philosophy of language, and the information it contained had as its purpose the advancement of that philosophy.”

—Neil Postman,
Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future.

Vancouver Courier
January 16, 2000

The Christmas tree is finally down and will soon become wood chips. The post-holiday tradition of tree recycling is not exactly romantic or inspirational, but useful nonetheless. Has a nice sense of finality about it, too. Too bad not everything can be dispensed with so easily. Some holdovers from this and other years pile up and smoulder like a peat fire.

I refer to our mountain of clichés—that steaming pile of linguistic detritus for which there is no post-consumer use, assuming, of course, an original use actually existed. This month, Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., issued its annual list of overused, misused and generally useless words that deserve banishment from the English lexicon.

Topping the list, as expected, is “millennium” in all its irritating permutations. It would have taken little effort to trumpet 2000 correctly as the end of the 20th century instead of the beginning of the 21st, but thanks to laziness and commercial exploitation, “millennium” has joined the chorus of aural pollution.

Other ignominious honours included the Internet prefix “e-” (e-commerce, e-trade etc.) and the pat phrases “thinking outside the box,” and “road rage.”

To this list I could add a few of my own, like the gratuitous aggrandizing addition of “event” or “experience.” How is “movie event of the summer” an improvement over “movie of the summer”? Why weaken a specific noun by making it serve a generic one?

Then there’s “violence,” which now seems incomplete without the tag ending “against women.” One day I also expect to find this trite trio tossed on LSSU’s lame list.

Unfortunately, intoning “Out, out, damned cliché!” with all appropriate gravity is not always sufficient. The LSSU project had already banished “Y2K” in January 1999, yet it was rescued from the grammar reaper.

The LSSU project might seem like little more than a quaint annual custom, like a New Year’s resolution list, but it deserves to be taken seriously. Unlike France or Russia, North America has no body to superintend the language and protect it from the proliferation of clichés and misused words.

Some people, most I would suspect, reject the notion that language should be disciplined at all. Because language is a public good, people will speak howsoever they wish. Admittedly, attempts to impose control from above would likely only meet with modest success. Still, I can only admire the sentiments of Dr. Samuel Johnston, described at the top of this column. The point is, people should want to communicate clearly. This is a sign of literacy, which is essential to the survival of a free society.

It’s no coincidence that clichés and buzzwords proliferate most easily in tyrannies, where independent thought is discouraged, and propagandists determine what people say and how they say it.

As our society becomes less print-oriented and more dependent on visual images, bad language will increasingly crowd out good, especially given our high-speed communication. The best examples are the public relations and advertising industries, both of which exist solely to short-circuit our critical faculties. As a result, they are the greatest users of clichés—pre-packaged slogans that any idiot can use if real language proves to be too difficult.

Dr. Richard Wessler, a psychotherapist at Pace University in New York, oddly enough, says this is a good thing. “These phrases are like poetry, a condensation of a lot of meaning into a few words,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. “Part of their beauty is they can mean anything. They can be delivered with different inflections under different circumstances.”

The need to sound culturally relevant is certainly important. Nobody wants to become like Austin Powers’ nemesis Dr. Evil—an anachronism whose clichés, like “Don’t go there, girlfriend!” and “Where’s the beef?” are taken literally and seem ridiculous.

But how Wessler can equate a cliché with beauty, poetry and meaning defies understanding. How can an infinitely elastic expression mean anything? To argue that it does, amounts to a defence of linguistic nihilism. Take “feminist”—it has been forced to encompass such a broad spectrum of women and male sympathists that the word is now useless.

Clichés might have transitory entertainment value—“Who loves ya baby?” “Drop the chalupa!” “trickle-down economics”—and be benign in small doses, but they do not communicate useful information. We can’t stop clichés from cluttering up the language, but the least we can do is not concoct sophistries to justify their existence.