Should I really worry about clichés? Haven’t they been—please excuse me—done to death? Let’s push that envelope through another window of opportunity at this point in time for all intents and purposes. Yada yada. After we’ve heard such dead equines re-flogged a few dozen times, the whipping becomes nothing more than white noise.
In 2001 Martin Amis declared war on clichés, describing them as ‘herd thinking, herd writing’. Strong words. Tough-guy stance. ‘All writing,’ said Amis, ‘is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the heart.’ In October 2009 James Parker of the Boston Globe retaliated. ‘Who will say a good word for the cliché? Its sins are so numerous.’ Parker danced around before punching back. ‘The classic cliché has fought philology to a standstill: it sticks and it stays, and not by accident.’ Brave pose from the challenger but he failed to land a knockout punch.
Click go the clichés. What an odd little word, originating from noises made by moveable type; nowadays debased, it connotes a mechanical empty sound. Yet clichés must have been a boon to the pioneer typesetter: a nifty compositing unit before the days of tape-recording and typewriters. Today they afford handy avenues of emotional reach in times of crisis but they can mire our prose in dullness. As for politicians, how would any of them survive without the cliché to mouth their vox platitudes (‘at the end of the day going forward in due course with respect to blah blah blah’)? Our elected leaders depend on the democratising power of cliché in their search for a common touch. This insults voter intelligence, as well as sapping originality from the message. If public figures must dabble with triteness, they ought to trust in humour to keep their language fresh and engaging. Winston Churchill was a master at it: witness his references to Ramsay MacDonald (‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’) or Stanley Baldwin (‘He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened’).
As culture-specific and regional English expressions vanish faster than last season’s celebrities, our political leaders now spout a deracinated variety designed for the global audience. In Australia ‘courage of our convictions’ has replaced ‘land of the fair go,’ and ‘get straight to the point’ has superseded an old hunting term like ‘beat about the bush’. I consider this a net loss: the bland in search of the blandishment.
But one type of stale adage remains sacrosanct: the sporting cliché. Successes are ‘quick wins’. A botched policy is ‘dropping the ball’. Underachievers must ‘lift their game.’ And we mustn’t forget the turf clichés. England has a ‘first past the post’ electoral system. Every five years Fleet Street editorials ‘back a winner’ or ‘have a bet each way’. Flogging a lexical dead stallion is no different in the USA. Entering ‘the home straight’ in an election year, certain seats could be ‘won by a nose.’ Some of the primaries invariably fall to an ‘outsider’ rather than the ‘odds-on favourite.’
Harmless enough, you say? Unfortunately in management and government circles the cliché has become pernicious. Weed-like, it strangles life from discourse. Mission statements and bureaucratic edicts gush with words like ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ while a prevailing orthodoxy demands the opposite: conformity and acquiescence. Must we hear talk of ‘vision’ spouting from the mouth of yet another CEO or departmental chief as though he or she has just coined it? If Shakespeare were writing today he might describe the word as ‘overworn.’
Clichés are someone else’s idea gone stale. ‘Think outside the box.’ ‘Give 110%.’ ‘People are our greatest resource.’ ‘Need to work smarter not harder.’ Originality bows and then falls before the onslaught of buzz phrases. Repeat the litany: we are committed to implementation. Meaning what? An ‘implement’ was once a tool, now it’s… well, it’s doing something. And we’re committed to doing it. We might not get there but we’re committed… Sure, but would that be a plan, a calculation, a decision or an evaluation? Er, um…
I sympathise with Boston Globe up to a point, Lord Copper. Clichés can help us to sort out emotional priority in sensitive situations. But I cast my vote with Amis. A cliché is the couch potato of language. For an antidote, we may emulate Churchill’s subversion: ‘There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.’ We can even exploit clichés for fun, if not profit, or avoid them like the plague—especially that one. Last but not least, the reality is, with due consideration in this day and age, that it’s not rocket science. Hope I make myself clear. In no uncertain terms.
As we flick the whip over the carcase of another mare, I’ll continue to worry.
Many of us have a personal bias about particular word formations. My latest gripe is with the plural gerund ‘learnings’.
Ugh. Sorry, it even hurts me to write the thing. As a not-quite synonym for ‘lessons,’ this word not only grates on my ear it fails to do the job it promises. I consider it to be a sphincter-clenching vogue word. But I freely acknowledge my prejudice, just as I acknowledge that the word—though aesthetically ugly—may have a purpose. Also it has given me pause.
What exactly is wrong with ‘learnings,’ other than my distaste for it? As an example of ever-evolving English, the phenomenon of plural gerunds has probably irritated writers and readers for centuries. When I line this one up with its linguistic bedfellows ‘learnings’ is hardly remarkable. Many of these ugly ducklings have long been part of standard English, e.g. findings, sayings, beings, makings, winnings, workings, doings, belongings, failings and writings. So I, like others before me, may just need to get over it.
This leads me to wonder whether my dislike of ‘learnings’ could be symptomatic of a legion of other writers and readers who take objection to a new spelling or coinage. For example, what about nouns turned into verbs? I know a few souls who have vented their wrath on such words as an abomination; I also know many more readers who haven’t even noticed. A warning for the language purists–please look away now. Some of these may distress: ‘to diarise,’ ‘to incentivise,’ ‘to action,’ ‘to access,’ ‘to benchmark,’ ‘to party,’ ‘to caveat.’
And turning a verb into a noun is no more palatable, e.g. ‘a disconnect,’ or ‘a big ask.’ This development is probably an aspect of increasing informality in English that has slowly been affecting standard speech until all the Samuel Johnsons and Jonathon Swifts–like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men–are powerless to intervene.
Last week I heard a new plural gerund. I’m told it’s been floating around management and adult education circles for some time: ‘trainings.’ Easy, stomach. At committee meetings and information forums I have also collected ‘usings,’ ‘doings’ and ‘succeedings.’ Why do we need these clumsy new coinages when there are perfectly good nouns available?
Perhaps the phemomenon belongs to an impulse for novelty and terminological inflation. By that I mean the tendency towards bombast, whereby ‘dustman’ (Britain), ‘trash collector’ (USA) or ‘garbo’ (AUS) becomes ‘garbologist’ or ‘sanitation engineer.’ We have entered the era of overblown nouns. Doorways become ‘entry systems’ and teachers are ‘learning facilitators’. It’s no longer impressive enough to be a storeman or storeperson: now the title has to be ‘inventory controller’. This syndrome even extends to the tasks that people are required to perform. Managers used to manage: a difficult enough role without inflated task descriptions that may now include ‘deployment activities to support process institutionalisation and sustainment’ and ‘business methods enhancement’. Managers no longer merely train, coach and supervise staff: instead they ‘identify process competency gaps,’ ‘meet corporative objectives’ and ‘target core deliverables’.
So pardon me if I continue to choke on ‘learnings.’ And I won’t be using ‘usings’ any time soon. Doesn’t stop me worrying about it though.
Politicians like to trumpet the virtue of plain speaking. But once in office, they tend not to show leadership in this regard. Here’s an extract from the website of the current opposition leader in Australia: ‘The project will enable the industry to be more proactive in evaluating its current situation, dealing with emerging issues, and planning for the future.’ Does this former Rhodes Scholar not know that ‘proactive’ is frequently misused as an antonym for ‘passive?’ Is he unaware that ‘emerging issues’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘stuff?’ And ‘planning for the future’ is outright tautology.
But he’s not alone. His opposite number, the country’s previous prime minister, spoke a dialect all his own while in office. ‘To engage the Australian community in the development of an ambitious long-term national strategic plan with accompanying benchmarks and measurable outcomes…’ Gobbledegook forms a useful shield when scrutiny turns dangerous for our leaders. We’ve heard many a firebrand candidate, once elected, retreating behind qualifiers, modifiers and subordinate clauses.
Politics is only the most visible arena for fluffy talk. Unfortunately this syndrome also occurs in the retail, education, telecommunications, manufacturing, construction and hospitality sectors. Too often we read the words of followers rather than leaders. Politicians tell us they’re ‘reflecting community attitudes,’ which is code for policy backflips based on polling data. Retailers and anyone else selling a service have the excuse of ‘catering to market trends,’ which is code for copying the successful methods of competitors. So each marketplace sees the bland leading the blind.
And who gets left in the dark? We do, the ordinary citizens—sorry, I mean ‘consumers.’ Banks, law firms and insurance companies follow the principles of ‘fiscal probity’ and ‘risk aversion,’ which all too often are code phrases for minimising our access to knowledge and thereby diminishing our capacity for informed decision-making. It’s we consumers who have to wade through the tortuous prose found in legal or finance documents. Written in good faith perhaps. All honourable men and women. But their mess seems impossible to sidestep: a midden of polite meaningless words.
And it has reached the last uncontaminated section of our workforce. Managerial hokum now taints the non-profit sector. Providers of welfare, child care and allied health are spouting incomprehensible jargon in their customer charters and their vision statements, full of sound and fury but signifying little. A citizens’ advice bureau is obliged to practice ‘client interface’ and ‘core business.’ Why? And why must a neighbourhood centre have ‘proactive feedback loops’? Why should a church-funded agency or faith-based school require a ‘mission’ statement? Coals to Newcastle, one would think.
But meaning is irrelevant. Intone the vogue-word code and any genuine listener might tune out long enough for a hired management consultant to dodge responsibility. At the end of the day we are committed to implementation going forward in real terms… blah blah. Is it harmless? Readers and listeners can tolerate a few new-minted MBAs buzzing with their ‘synergies,’ ‘paradigm shifts’ and ‘social capital,’ but why must this verbal sewage pollute nursing homes, material aid services and drug treatment agencies? Why must such organisations jabber in a corporate dialect? Such crap will feed or clothe nobody. It will provide no relief or succour to the poor, the tired or the huddled masses when healing has been reduced to a ‘deliverable’.
I remember when government used to provide direct services before the madness of Thatcher-Reagan-Howard privatisation, before the auto-da-fé of slashing and burning. In that bonfire glow, faceless deregulators ‘outsourced’ delivery. Managerial claptrap spread like noxious weed. And ever since, success rates have become ‘benchmarking,’ results have become ‘outcomes,’ and lessons are described as ‘learnings.’ Now we’re all supposed to have ‘key performance indicators.’ How else can we know which ones are key and which are non-key?
I might forgive fashion victims of the welfare and education sectors their naughty acquiescence to newspeak if it was found to reduce poverty in one household or improve the prospects of one student. Instead it merely wastes spittle on the dust of contract compliance. The rationale seems to be that palaver placates funding bodies. And this near-ubiquitous dialect drips with false superlatives, blathering on about ‘leading edges’ and ‘world’s best practice,’ which add up to naught. Agencies discharge this humbug in tones as boring as bat excrement, mouthing a creed that nobody believes. Concrete nouns and active verbs hide, as if on witness protection.
Next time you have to read marketing materials from a non-profit funded by government I challenge you to try tracing a finger over the hieroglyphics and see if you can remain alert. It’s beyond my skill, and I read fairly widely. First my toes go numb, then my legs, and soon I’m gasping for breath. Whether the woolly words are describing my children’s schools or a health centre or a community supermarket, the same phrases stifle. ‘Our challenge is to deliver cutting edge functionality.’ ‘We are committed to leveraging service drivers to gain buy-in.’ Yada, yada. Pass the razor blades now.
Balderdash isn’t new, of course. Back in 1948, Sir Ernest Gowers worried about bureaucratese in Plain Words, a guide to the use of English. In that same year George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which thought control and language earn a mention or two. Have we heeded the prophets? Not at this point in time. Not at this particular juncture.
I could blame the education system or the media but that would be just rounding up the usual suspects. This magnificent language deserves better from the leaders of government and industry, who could set an example, rather than kow-towing to the mumbo-jumbo merchants. They could give us genuine hope for plain speaking, so we may dream of the day when ordinary people can understand application forms and government websites without needing a degree in advanced gibberish. Better an authentic word or two than a key deliverable. And that’s worth worrying about.
I worry about words that are used without a precise meaning in mind. They might connote a dozen different things. Such word habits are lazy but they’re also an insult to our language. Already in this blog I’ve raved about vacuous verbs and abandoned adverbs. Now it’s the turn of numbskull nouns.
Let’s take the noun ‘issue.’ Depending on the speaker, ‘issues’ can mean any of the following: (1) problems to be solved, (2) problems to be discussed, (3) problems that may or may not be immediate or urgent, (4) potential problems, (5) personal attitudes, (6) pressures from competing priorities or interested parties, (7) ideological objections or (8) problems in one’s personal life that obstruct professional decision-making. Entire meetings can be wasted with such fuzzy talk, e.g. ‘That’s a real issue’ and ‘We should address key issues.’ It’s bad enough in conversation, but when a speaker transfers his or her lack of clarity to the page, a cloud of non-specificity descends. Every reader of a meeting’s minutes can form an entirely different interpretation of the speaker’s intent.
What about ‘key drivers,’ ‘commitment’ and ‘implementation’? Numbskull nouns are often strung together as if they mean something. Perhaps the writer hopes that a meaning will become apparent. For example: ‘our commitment to implementation and evaluation strategies,’ ‘key drivers of managerial effectiveness through feedback reports.’
Yuk. There’s a lot of this about. Such wastrels populate the vacant sentences we often find in mission statements and strategic plans. They insult our language with their impersonal dull thud. They need artificial sweeteners or flavour supplements. They need to be injected with vitamins. Some just need putting down.
I feel for the nouns ‘evaluation’ and ‘strategy.’ They each have a specific and precise meaning. But they’re often bandied about as if their use alone will raise the standard of a flat sentence. They’re genuine actors roped in for cameo appearances on the set of a second-rate movie in an attempt to boost audience interest but without being given decent lines or direction.
As for that ugly little word ‘implementation,’ there is no excuse for such a B-grade performer. I would ban it, if I had the power. What an inane promise. What a fancy way of saying ‘to do.’ And a ‘key driver’: what’s that? Is it better than a driver? How many steering wheels does the vehicle have? Is there such a thing as a non-key driver?
But I save my vitriol for last. What the hell does ‘commitment’ mean? A non-core promise, if ever I heard one. That dog won’t bite or bark; nor will it do anything else. It hardly registers a pulse. To offer ‘commitment’ to anything or anyone costs nothing. Will circumstances change after this so-called commitment? Will there be improvements or further meetings? Will the minutes record this or that motion? Will there be action, some paper trail, a decision made or an evaluation conducted? Maybe. Who can tell? Improvements may or may not transpire. In the fullness of time. At the appropriate juncture. In due course. At the end of the day we remain committed to implementation.
I have issues with that. I need a key driver. Harrumph.
I worry about these second-class citizens when they lack a big strong verb to lean on.
The word ‘absolutely’ is often used nowadays as a harmless interjection, a mindless affirmation or just a synonym for ‘yes.’ But sometimes it can also act as cover for uncertainty; more like a ‘Gee, I hope so’ than a ‘You betcha.’ It can also mean ‘Hey, I’ve got no idea but I’m making positive noises to cover my ignorance.’ Yeah, absolutely.
There are other lonely adverbs trying to embark on a solo career. Consider the word ‘completely’ which, when used on its own, isn’t complete. Likewise ‘utterly’ tends to fall short of being utter. This is harmless in conversation but I’ve been noticing the usage creeping into formal written English. ‘Is there a consensus of opinion? Totally.’ ‘Is the situation dire? Utterly.’ Sometimes these lonely adverbs are used adjectivally to gild the lily (yes, a mishearing of Shakespeare’s original from King John) whereby they function as tautology: ‘completely obliterated,’ ‘utterly famished.’ And many an abandoned adverb amounts to no more than ‘very,’ another word that has strayed from its earlier meaning.
But, for my money, the worst offender in this category is barely even a conjunction. I’m talking about ‘hopefully’.
Wow, is this a coward’s word or just a verbal shrug? Unless it’s attached to a verb, ‘hopefully’ belongs to nobody. Lacking both owner and object, it bears no nametag. It should languish in the lost property office of language. Here is an example: ‘Hopefully the situation will soon resolve itself.’ Is the speaker referring to my hope or yours? Who is doing the hoping: you, your colleagues, your clients, or no one in particular? Maybe the word used in this way amounts to a form of prayer, or a vague hope for humanity. Yeah, hopefully.
I worry less about the use of ‘hopefully’ in conversation. When chatting, we’re all entitled to use expressions like ‘here’s hoping.’ It can be a sign of fellowship, a shared wish or a nod to optimism. But in writing there’s no excuse. Writing needs to be precise. If I use ‘hopefully’ without a verb, I’m either craven or mentally lazy. ‘Hopefully this makes sense.’ Really? I don’t think so. Either you hold a hope or I do, or it belongs to both of us. The onus is on the writer to be clear, to make his or her message effective. Somebody is doing that hoping. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s Barack Obama. A more honest and respectful alternative would be ‘I hope I’m making sense here’ or ‘I hope we can reach mutual understanding.’
Come on, how difficult is this? The message then becomes genuine and explicit. It might even engender trust. A human being takes responsibility for an action. Stop the presses! Next we’ll be forgetting to blame our governments for everything we don’t like. Hopefully. Using an adverb other than with a verb (he asked hopefully) feels like the emptiest of written gestures. Hopefully such occurrences will soon be outdated. It is be hoped.
Yeah, totally. I worry about that.
I worry about verbs that either don’t mean anything or else mean too many things at once.
‘Let’s address that.’ Meaning we will do what?
Politicians like to ‘address’ things: ‘I think it’s very important that we address labour shortages’ (Tony Abbott, Liberal Party website, 2010). ‘I will address climate change in the most serious fashion’ (John McCain, Business Week, June 2007).
We hear the same waffle from big business: ‘One of our key social and environmental responsibilities is to pursue strategies that address the issue of climate change’ (Santos Mining, 2010), and from government: ‘ACCC would be concerned if the implementation of the proposed changes does not sufficiently address the issues raised in the draft notice’ (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 2009).
Verbs should not fog: they should clear the windscreen. Hand signals can only take us so far. At some point, speakers need names for their actions. A strong verb can illuminate. But if the speaker can’t explain what he or she means, where does that leave listeners? In the dark, and not always by accident.
A plague is infecting our discourse; a plague of empty verbs without meaning, or too many meanings. Take that earlier example. To ‘address’ an envelope makes perfect sense. But unless I use it in either of these two senses, the word might mean a dozen different things: to fix, to discuss, to research, to pass to an outsider, to delegate to staff, to take soundings, to consult, to cross-examine, to put on an agenda or a To-do list, to write a position paper, to record in the minutes, to postpone and then file away, to make a speech to the United Nations assembly.
Confused? Score zero for clear thinking, negative ten for accountability. And there’s more.
How about that vague verb ‘to flag’? ‘Premier Colin Barnett has flagged a major push to populate the state’s north-west’ (The West Australian Nov 9, 2009). What does such flagging amount to? We can ‘flag’ down a taxi. Understood. When we read Winston Churchill’s words ‘We shall not flag or fail’ this too makes sense. But if I offer to ‘flag’ an agenda item, mightn’t my listeners expect me to do something? What exactly? Will I schedule, list, file, highlight, note or consider? Maybe I intend to appease someone, or just pretend to act but really to prevaricate, or none of the above. Can’t pin anything on me. I only flagged.
When politicians promise they will ‘progress’ a discussion, we might expect them to consult, to form a committee, to make a task queue, to delegate downwards or pass to a ministerial colleague—or none of the above. If leaders won’t make their verbs clear, what results can they expect?
Empty verbs wimp out, calling in sick. And all too often this is the speaker’s aim. It should be noted in the minutes. Issue to be addressed. Someone may or may not do something about it, in due course, in the fullness of time.
Worst culprit of the lot is that vacuous verb ‘to enhance.’ It spruiks its specious pledge from utility companies, banks, medical services and spam e-mail. And, by my count, it has at least twelve possible synonyms: to enlarge, to improve, to lengthen, to speed up, to simplify, to become more sophisticated or cost-effective, to develop additional features, to brighten, to sharpen, to enrich, to strengthen, or several of the above.
Verbs power our language. They crunch, burn, tackle, blister, bleed, giggle or weep. They soar, shout, stink, sing or dance. Vacuous verbs only limp. ‘We have issues with this situation’ instead of ‘We demand to know.’ ‘Performance problems have arisen in terms of staff delivery’ instead of ‘our staff failed to deliver.’ Weak verbs hide behind nouns. Er, um, just following orders.
To combat vacuous verbs we can shine a light, removing the shadows. When I hear someone promise to ‘address,’ ‘flag’ or ‘enhance,’ I take mischievous delight in asking what exactly the speaker proposes to do. Let this be our clarion call. Address stampers, print clearly. Enhancers, own up to shape and texture. Flaggers, hoist your intentions. Verbs rule.
That’s better. Feeling enhanced?
I still worry though.