Speaking of nothing in particular…
West Coast Editor
March 2007

To gauge the state of modern English, you need look no further than The Simpsons, arguably the most realistic show on TV, animation notwithstanding. Not only has it given us catchphrases and neologisms (d’oh!), but its satires on language turn out to be more than clever writing.

In the beginning of the 1992 episode “Brother, can you spare two dimes?” we learn that Homer Simpson has been made sterile because of his work at the plant. On the advice of his lawyers, plant owner/miser Montgomery Burns has to offer compensation, so he offers him a measly $2,000 cheque and tries to get him to sign a release form.

Homer, though, wants an explanation, and so Burns hastily and haltingly explains that Homer has won the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. Homer signs, but only after being promised a big awards ceremony and a trophy.

Besides the contrast between Homer’s infamous stupidity and the idea of excellence, which dates from c 1408 and comes from the Latin excellere (“to rise, surpass, be eminent”), the great humour in this scene lies in the generic vacuity of the award. It brings to mind the joke about the celebrated farmer who was outstanding in his field, yet the abuse of abstract nouns to stand for nothing in particular is a pervasive  sign of our deteriorating discourse.

“Solution,” for example, connotes answer, result, or a liquid mixture. What is a “business solution?” High liquidity? The answer to a problem? No, it’s a whole skein of electronic services to improve a client’s business efficiency, but we don’t say “business efficiency” or “electronic business services.” Though still generic, these terms are at least relevant. I wonder if the best business solutions provider should be eligible for The Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Solutions.

Anyway, getting back to “excellence,” I came upon a job posting from mining giant BHP Billiton Diamonds for a “Business Excellence Coordinator” in the category of “Business Excellence.” It begins: “You will be a holistic, critical thinker with strong analytic communication, and facilitation skills gained through a minimum of 3-5 years leadership level experience.” It goes on in this vein for three paragraphs never once describing the job in any tangible manner. Note the abstract nouns— communication, facilitation, skills, experience—to say nothing of the dubious grammar.

Life imitates a cartoon! As Mr. Burns would say as he tents his fingers—“Excellent!”