Much [ed.] do about nothing, or Being There is half the fun

West Coast Editor,
June 2006

As I read the brochure for this year’s national convention, I was struck by a profound sense of déjà vu, or rather déjà lu: “We are expanding our role as cultivators of communication— one day we plant the seed of clarity in a writer’s mind, and next we prune words for online use. All the while we tend to the needs of publications, projects and clients, and still keep a watchful eye on the economic weather.”

These horticultural metaphors—“cultivators,” “plant the seed”, “prune,” “weather”— brought to mind the deep wisdom of Chance the gardener in the 1979 satire Being There: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden. In a garden, growth has its season. There is spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again.”

You see how easy it was for me to graft Chance onto the conference brochure: “So long as the etymons are not severed from their modern connotations, all is well, and all will be well with the language. The growth of words knows no season, for growth is a perennial condition. Those who work in the field of editing must constantly take care to plant the seeds of clarity and carefully cultivate the art of communication so that language may flourish in all economic weather.”

Whereas Chance is a simpleton whose inane utterances on gardening are mistaken for profound economic metaphors, an editor is a well-educated professional who should know better than to be fooled by such linguistic dross. Therefore, I am at a loss to explain the name for this year’s conference: “Cultivating Diversity.”

Since the 18th century, “diversity” has meant “different in character or quality.” When we speak of a “diversity of opinion” we do nothing more than acknowledge the existence of more than one point of view. We cannot cultivate “diversity” any more than we can cultivate “homogeneity,” “plurality” or “similarity.” Even when “diversity” is used meaningfully as an attributive adjective (“making the most of your diverse talents interests and specialties”) it is banal. Hence, the title is as meaningless as Chance’s economic policy.

The greatest threat facing English is the profusion of addled sentimentality, clichés, and abstract Franco-Latin nouns that impair our ability to communicate effectively. Language should stimulate thought, not anaesthetize it. If editors are to be encouraged to cultivate anything at this convention, it should be a greater vigilance against pleonasms, buzzwords, and vacuity.

As Chance might say, “If our garden is to become healthy, we must fertilize the flowers and pull up the weeds, not the other way around.”