I teach writing to graduate students. For about half the semester, I have to train them to unlearn every habit they’ve acquired in other classes. Jargon. Pretentious phrasing meant to show they “do theory.” Insider codes. Abstract flights of unmoored words traipsing around in the post-structuralist heavens, winking and kissing each other, making everyone on the ground feel stupid.
For the past 20 years, Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write has been one of my indispensable guides. Keyes helps readers understand that much of what they thought was sophisticated scholarly prose actually generates “verbal fog” — the use of jargon and other forms of “higher obfuscation” — to obscure rather than clarify thought.
I have my students bring in a previously written piece, cross out all the foggy items, and try to replace them with ordinary English. Most are shocked to discover that once they declutter their writing, they often have no idea what they meant to say. It’s a depressing but necessary exercise for which they are ultimately grateful. Once they’ve cleared away the fog, they can ask themselves what they are truly interested in writing about — and, in many cases, they rediscover why they wanted to write in the first place. That motivation often gets lost in the process of so-called professional training.
Another great guide is George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1948 but more applicable today than ever. In fact, I find it so piercingly true that even though I’ve taught the piece for decades, I still fall in love with it every time.
Expressing ideas precisely is hard. It’s so much easier to grab a familiar phrase and insert rather than struggle to find just the right words.
The first rule of good writing, Orwell notes, is to remember that “language is for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” Well, of course, you might be thinking. What else could language be for? In practice, however (and particularly in academia), we often use language as a kind of protective armor that makes us look smart and avoids any straight talk that would expose our confusion or not-yet-formed ideas. Expressing ideas precisely is hard. It’s so much easier to grab a familiar phrase and insert rather than struggle to find just the right words. The trouble with these familiar phrases, though, is that all the life has been beaten out of them. What’s left is empty verbal skin and none of the meat of meaning.
What we should be doing instead, according to Orwell, is “letting the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” He goes on, with a phrase that gives me chills every time, “In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them.”
I’m pretty sure that unless you’ve read “Politics and the English Language,” this is the first time you’ve encountered the idea of surrendering to words. That’s part of why it’s so great. It catches us by surprise, unexpectedly putting together the emotionally charged idea of surrender with that quotidian little noun word. But Orwell gives us more. Surrendering to words means “throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
The verbal fog of acadamese is a species of surrender to words, but not the only one. Political writing, Orwell argues (in fact, it’s his main target), suffers from a similarly stale, imprecise, essentially clubby embrace of prefabricated phrases, repetitious metaphors that have been bludgeoned to death, pretentious verbal tics, and other enemies of clarity and communication. “As soon as certain topics are raised,” Orwell writes, “no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
Orwell wasn’t thinking of broadcast punditry when he wrote these words, of course, but political pamphlets, articles, manifestos, and speeches. Television was in an experimental stage in 1948, and for many years after played a tiny 30-minute role as a conveyer of news. Today the talking heads never shut up—even when there is little actual news to report or when they have already reported it 10 times—and prefabricated construction is the norm. After I heard MSNBC’s Kristen Welker use the word robust four times in a two-minute report, I decided to turn my annoyance into a game. I asked my Facebook and Twitter friends which words and phrases they would most like to see purged from the media’s vocabulary. I wasn’t surprised that each was an example of one of Orwell’s top enemies of thought.
1. Dying Metaphors
“Worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
- “Getting out over one’s skis” (very popular at the moment)
- “Speaking truth to power” (especially when said about someone who is in a position of power)
- “Rockstar” (when applied to a politician)
- “Teachable moment”
- “Horse race” (when applied to contest for political office)
- “At the end of the day”
- “Our better angels”
Some of these all-too-familiar turns were once vibrant. “Unpack,” for example, used to be exclusive to the vocabulary of analytic philosophers. When journalists picked this up, it evoked a visual image that had some life, suggesting that ideas were like suitcases, stuffed full of various items to be sorted rather than singular in nature.
“Our better angels” was evocative and lovely when President Barack Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln, and (unlike the Gettysburg Address) Lincoln’s inaugural address was new to many people. (“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”) And “speaking truth to power” was both passionate and precise as the title of Anita Hill’s memoir. Today, however, all these phrases are as common as punctuation marks.
During the Great Swindle of the 2016 election, broadcast news went all post-modern on us, and “narrative” and “optics” became standard pundit vocabulary.
More disturbing than the simply overused phrases are those that influence how listeners organize their perceptions. When a politician is anointed a “rock star,” for example, it immediately casts a certain sheen over him (I’ve yet to hear “rock star” applied to a woman) and immediately makes viewers want to come to the party. Political rock stars are as much, if not more, the creation of the media as any groundswell, yet pundits continually describe such stardom as though they are reporting a natural phenomenon.
Another example: Describing a political contest as a “horse race” confers a kind of equality to the contestants, even if one is a thoroughbred and the other a show pony. It also creates a sense of breathless anticipation. Who is gaining? Who is falling behind? Are they neck and neck? All of this makes position in the polls seem far more important than, say, policy differences.
2. Verbal False Limbs
Basically, padding that adds nothing to a sentence except excess syllables.
- “Quite frankly” (rarely used to indicate that a particularly frank or candid statement is coming; reporters have become addicted to peppering their sentences with this)
- “The fact of the matter”
- “With all due respect”
- “It remains to be seen”
- “Look” or “So” (as the first word of the answer to a question, serving no purpose other than to create the illusion of dialogue)
3. Pretentious Diction
The examples Orwell gives are drawn from science, history, Greek, Latin, and foreign phrases. His essay preceded the importing of academic jargon into mainstream journalism. Our pundits are younger, and many have apparently minored in philosophy or literary criticism. The following — rarely true to their original meaning, but retaining their air of theoretical or political cool — have crept into prime-time broadcasting.
- “Deconstruct” (often used interchangeably with “unpack,” which comes from an entirely different tradition in philosophy)
- “Narrative” (more about this in a bit)
- “Optics” (also more in a bit)
- “Epistemological” (actually, this one probably belongs more under the “verbal false limbs” category, as there is rarely a reason to use it outside of a discussion about knowledge — a topic that is hard to make as ratings-friendly as the word itself)
- “Existential” (always used to mean “threatening the very continued existence of,” which is about as far from what Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, or any other original existentialist practitioner of the term meant)
- “Othering” or “Otherness” (when someone like Chris Hayes uses it, it’s more a badge of lefty honor than the useful concept that it is — and it comes from Simone DeBeauvoir, not any post-post theorist)
4. Meaningless Words
Orwell is referring to words that are so plastic and have such variable meanings that they wind up with no accepted meaning at all, and are thus used — sometimes deceptively — any way the speaker wants.
The most glaring contemporary example I can think of is “establishment,” which “the left” (another phrase that fits the bill) still throws around with passion. But it’s not just the left that is guilty. Bernie Sanders may have originally tossed the grenade, but commentators and anchors from left, right, and center have passed it from hand to hand casually and recklessly, seemingly unaware that although the word is a dud meaning-wise, it can cause extensive damage as a weapon of political destruction.
Its so-called opposite, “progressive,” is among Orwell’s own examples, and pundits now use it (in a contrast with “centrist” or “moderate”) to designate different wings of Democrats. They then distribute politicians with basically similar agendas and ideals under one column or another, creating the illusion of major differences. In 2015 and 2016, they smushed together Trump and Clinton with false equivalences; now they’ve turned Democrats into competing camps by labeling some “progressive” and some “centrist.”
Optics are not facts, and reporting on optics with the same urgency and repetitive emphasis as facts… is to create, for listeners or readers, a secondary world of faux realities.
A couple of other provocative labels that have no commonly accepted meaning but are powerful shapers of how prospective voters imagine their choices: “insurgent” and “populist.” Orwell calls this kind of self-serving shell game, in which honorific or demonizing labels appear wherever they are placed, a swindle.
During the Great Swindle of the 2016 election, broadcast news went all post-modern on us, and “narrative” and “optics” became standard pundit vocabulary. Why were journalists suddenly talking like English professors? I guess it felt fresh and somehow sexy to stop reporting what happened — the old-fashioned point of the news — and begin talking about what academics used to call the construction of reality. This is the study of how things are put together and shaped for various ends; the impact of how they appear and the impressions they create, rather than boring old facts.
But optics are not facts, and reporting on optics with the same urgency and repetitive emphasis as facts (as in the hysteria of suspicion raised when Clinton, after nearly fainting during a 9/11 outdoor ceremony, “disappeared” into Chelsea’s apartment without — heaven forbid! — telling the press why) is to create, for listeners or readers, a secondary world of faux realities as vivid and “evidentiary” as what actually took place (Clinton had pneumonia).
No, I don’t think the mainstream media is a generator of fake news. But by allowing the journalistic fashions-of-the-moment to displace the rigor of distinctions, precision, and the difference between appearance and fact, mainstream media has softened the ground in which the Trumpian garden of lies could plant itself and flourish.
Trump has convinced an awful lot of people that Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt” simply by saying the words over and over, as journalists have called out. What they haven’t acknowledged is that repetitively describing Russian interference as “meddling” has arguably shaped people’s understanding by underplaying the seriousness of what happened. Meddling is what an interfering old relative does. The Russians very likely altered the course and outcome of a presidential election.
The most destructive examples, however, which I detail in my most recent book and won’t rehash here, come from the lexicon that turned Hillary Clinton’s private email server into the offense of the century and Clinton herself into an untrustworthy, seriously flawed politician at best and a criminal at worst. (Flawed is a word to be purged, particularly from discourse about Hillary Clinton.)
5. Euphemisms and Clichés
Orwell doesn’t have a specific category for either of these, but they are clearly part of the surrender to words that is the main topic of his piece, and my Facebook and Twitter friends mentioned them frequently.
- “Troubling” (surely what’s happening today is worth a little more concern than that)
- “Give a listen” (sit back in your rocking chair, suck on your corncob pipe, and hear POTUS mangle law, language, and morality)
- “Hotly contested” (please don’t change the channel; this is exciting stuff)
- “Highly anticipated” (ibid)
- “Hopes and prayers” (it was painful, yet I was glad to see the parent of a recent school shooting victim tell the politicians, although not in exactly these words, to shove their hopes and prayers up a bodily orifice and get rid of guns)
- “Misspoke” (instead of “lied”)
- “Racially tinged” (instead of “racist”)
- “Unprecedented” (we know that all bets are off, all rules have been broken, under Trump)
And finally, one friend’s candidate for The Great Purge: “Every word out of Chuck Todd’s mouth.”
Interested in more deconstruction, unpacking, and unprecedented epistemological analysis of the mainstream media? Check out my book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election.