Words Out of Order

Scott McLemee highlights a half dozen catchphrases that have significantly overstayed their welcome.

October 25, 2017

Occasionally an expression will enter heavy use -- or misuse, as the case may be -- and then just sit there in public discourse like the last stupefied and uninvited guest at a party: impervious to hints and deaf to grumbling, repeating itself endlessly, laughing at its own wit and making a bit less sense each time.

The analogy isn’t perfect. You have the option of ejecting an unwelcome guest from your home. Determine who brought him or her, and you can put them both on the “do not invite” list. Nothing of the sort is possible with catchphrases that overstay their welcome. They remain until they disappear, somehow. If only there were a way to expedite the process! Incessant complaining will not do the trick. (I’ve tried.)

An expression may redeem itself after enough time has passed, though this is rare. One such recovery story is told by Nitsuh Abebe in a recent piece for The New York Times Magazine called “The Golden Age of ‘Existential’ Dread.” Much of Abebe’s point about the popular use of “existential” was put most tersely by Irving Howe, who, at the peak of its overuse in the 1970s, defined it as “a term meant to indicate significant imprecision.” Abebe’s insight into how and why the word has returned to public discourse suggests that “existential” now carries a sharper edge than it once did, and I recommend the essay to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

The 1990s were nowhere near over before “postmodern” replaced “existential” as the murky verbal gesture of choice. Other words-turned-catchphrases suffer from becoming, in effect, too concrete. Not long ago I used “maverick” in a rough draft, only to remove it in short order. In 2008, John McCain’s presidential campaign all but trademarked the word. It remains a live mental hyperlink in the brain of most Americans old enough to remember that election year. If an association is irrelevant, it is potentially distracting -- hence grounds for trying a synonym.

A half dozen expressions are on my current list of “please, just stop it” words. All but one are very directly products, or symptoms, of our deeply dysfunctional political culture -- most launched into interminable repetition in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. That part of the list contains few surprises. (Hazard a guess, and you will be for the most part correct.) The sixth case involves the corruption of a fairly common word; it is easy to overlook but also, I think, the cause for greatest concern.

On consideration, I may need to strike the first item off the list. Speculation on when and how one of the candidates might “pivot” from entertainer to statesman built up so much momentum that it continued for months after he took office. That seems to have stopped, and it’s hard to recall the last time I heard it employed without irony. It may be a while before we get that word back again in anything like its original condition.

The use of “optics” to mean “how things look” -- particularly how they look in the mass media -- sounded mildly clever at one point. It gave off a whiff of backroom scheming, as if a bit of public-relations jargon had been picked up on a hot mic and overheard by the rest of us. The same is true of losing and/or getting “control of the narrative,” with an added hint of cultural-studies course work giving the speaker traction on the actual media landscape.

Both “optics” and “control of the narrative” suggest a very old notion of public life (its political aspect, especially) as a kind of theater -- or rather, at this point, a reality TV production. As buzzwords, they imply a degree of critical distance. Unfortunately, they serve only to judge how well the show is being staged, with the public understood, not so implicitly, as a crowd of spectators rather than a citizenry.

And when that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it creates a highly contagious form of cynicism for which it becomes impossible to conceive of politics as a means to the end of living well together. (So Aristotle defined it, and there’s no better way to frame questions about a government’s inherent problems or failures.) This cynicism takes on an active character in the form of the demagogue and his followers. They deny legitimacy to any force that might try to check their propaganda or power.

To that end, we have the expressions “fake news” and “deep state” -- seldom used now as anything but the thought-stopping devices. They are such blatant counterfeits of critique that it is easy to dismiss them as merely irritating, rather than something worse.

But the sixth item on my list gives me pause. A few weeks or months back, I noticed the headline of an article stating that public figure X had “refuted” certain allegations or criticisms by public figure Y. I don’t recall the circumstances, only my surprise at reading the article to find that X had issued a denial without offering anything that might be called evidence or argument against Y’s claims.

Now, a refutation always implies denial, but the converse does not follow. The point is so obvious as to be pedantic, and I didn’t make too much of it. One misleading headline is unfortunate, though hardly symptomatic. But then I saw it happen again and again. Earlier this week, I plugged “refute” into Google News and looked through all of the articles on the first couple of pages in which the word appeared in a headline. In about half of them, the “refutation” consisted of gainsaying and nothing more -- no information, no logic, not a hint that anything more than a difference of opinion might be involved.

Languages change and meanings mutate, but this is more akin to disintegration -- and part of a vicious circle, in any case, if not an existential threat.


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