Thursday, May 04, 2006

Verbal Tics

If you've read any of the periodic communiques issued by Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, you'll see that al Qaeda likes to call the White House the Black House. I found this monumentally immature... and then I read Ann Coulter, calling the New York Times the Treason Times. Hmmm...

Why are people always described as "visibly moved," or "visibly agitated," or "visibly shaken?" To distinguish from those frequent occasions when we come to these conclusions by means other than visible?

When people say, "in a very real sense," they mean the opposite.

Why do reviewers like to describe movies as "visually kinetic?" I mean, these are motion pictures we're talking about, right? If it weren't visually kinetic, it would be a portrait. Or a still life.

Why do people have to say "past master?" What ever happened to just being a master? And wouldn't you rather be a present master than a past one?

Why is it a "sea change?" Couldn't it just be a big change, or maybe a profound change?"

Why do people think they sound educated when they use the wrong preposition? As in: "Jane will speak to that." No, Jane will speak to her audience about that subject. You can't speak to a subject. Or maybe you could, but it would be the same as talking to yourself.

If you don't think words have power, check out these euphemisms. Are the places we're keeping people we capture in the war on terror undisclosed detention facilities, or secret prisons? Are the people we're keeping there detainees, or prisoners? If we interrogate them hard, are we abusing them or torturing them? Sample these two headlines: "America abuses detainees at undisclosed detention facilities." "America tortures prisoners at secret prisons."

Speaking of which, there seems to be a subclass of euphemism that uses the definition of a word instead of the word itself (what's a prison if not a detention facility?). I think this is because the word itself has picked up too much emotional baggage (as good words should), and people come to prefer the drier, underlying definition -- sometimes because of discomfort, sometimes because they want to bullshit you. So bombs become Improvised Explosive Devices; stewardesses become flight attendants; maids become housekeepers or cleaning staff; now becomes "at this time."

Israel is a master (not a past master) at choosing the right word. The barrier Israel is building between Israel and the West Bank is typically called a fence, not a wall. "Fence" has such friendly connotations... good fences make good neighbors, picket fences. "Wall" sounds like the Berlin Wall, or the thing Montresor built in The Cask of Amontillado to bury Fortunato alive. And when Israeli forces kill their enemies, it's known as sikul memukad, or “focused prevention,” more commonly rendered in the western press as "targeted killing," which is of course precisely the definition of the word "assassination."

Can we all solemnly vow to stop using the hackneyed phrase "a cool million," or billion, or whatever? Yes, the idea is that the buyer didn't bat an eyelash as she made out the check, but surely there's a better way to convey this notion? And no, "he was visibly cool" isn't it...

Book reviewer David Montgomery shared with me this verbal pet peeve: "...and stuff." And now of course I hear it everywhere, and wish it would stop...

And Rain fan Harold Davey wrote me with these two: first, people who use nouns as verbs -- such as an engineer saying "I architected that program" (as opposed to more humbly merely designing it). That's why they say verbing nouns weirds the language...

Second, people who make every sentence into a question by using rising inflection at the end...?

(Join the good fight here)

"Very" is severely overused, usually because the speaker lacks confidence. But when it's used twice in a row, there's a good chance someone is trying to bullshit you. Repetition and other unnecessary words are also evidence of attempted bullshit (sounds like a crime, and ought to be one).

It's notable, therefore, that the chief drafter of the new House ethics bill, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier of California, called the bill a "very, very strong package," and went on to explain that "our aim, our goal, is a Congress that is effective, a Congress that is ethical and a Congress that is worthy of the public trust."

I feel better already.


Anonymous said...


ZenPupDog said...

Some of the kids today get upset when I call them "Reagan Youth" - and the sad part is they don't understand the context.

Anonymous said...

So, how many Congresses are we getting? Just one that occasionally did something useful would be fine with me ;-)

Anonymous said...

Good post on the games people play with language. (I'd say "very good", but I don't want to fall into that trap and stuff.)

I don't agree with every example, at least regarding the idea that they all demonstrate an attempt to subvert understanding or outrage (or stuff). Calling a homemade bomb an IED is the military way; that's why shovels are entrenching tools and you have APCs and SSBNs and stuff. (Yes, I'm doing it just to be annoying. Nice of you to notice.) And I think flight attendant was a solution to a real issue, that stewardess had a second class association of being women's work, and not requiring particularly capable women at that. In the same way that meter maid implies a job no self-respecting man would take, or the way you used to hear male nurse, because nursing was assumed to be a female role. (Men are doctors. Women just help them.) So changing from a gender-specific title to the generic flight attendant is a way of removing assumptions from the job. I suspect we'll see more of that sort of change in other fields with gender-specific titles, as with women being referred to as actors instead of actresses, at least the ones who are considered worthy of respect.

John Rickards said...

On a related note to the above, "political correctness" used as a derogatory term (in place of "consideration towards others that I wouldn't want to give if it were up to me"). While it's a concept that can be, and certainly has been, taken too far at times, the basic aim of not putting someone down through the language we use to describe them, their job, whatever, is a laudable one.

"It's political correctness GONE MAD!!!" is something of a running joke here about stories in the Daily Mail, standing up for Random Person X's right to do or say offensive things 'because they don't mean it that way, and after all it's a free country and my grandad fought in WWII so we could do that sort of thing'.

But that's nothing compared to people who use "leverage" as a verb. Previously the province of tech startup company press releases, it's crept into business speak and now into political statements. Terrible.

Thomas "Duffbert" Duff said...

The speech tic that irritates me greatly is the word "like". Listening to people say "and I'm, like..." or "you know, it's like..." Drives me up the wall! What's even worse is that I sit next to people who do that incessantly, and I find myself doing it too. ARRRRGGG!!!!!

Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

Anonymous said...

Two words that irritate me every time I hear them (and I hear them a lot at my job) are 'impact' and 'signage'. The economic trends 'impact'our profits...why not use 'affect'? And what makes 'signage' better than 'signs'? One more syllable? 'Like'is right up there, but my least favorite ? 'You know?' at the end of almost every sentence, with 'as if' a close second. Oh..and why exactly is 'in the day' any clearer than '10 (or 20 or 30) years ago'Or 'back then'? What day exactly does the speaker mean? :o)

Randy McFab said...

I apologize for my offensive comments here. I like to make a point with a sledgehammer, and my point was that labeling something as more reasonable or considered than what a Sean Hannity type provides doesn't make it so. And when Barry hinted he would kick my ass if I dared insult him in "real life" I reacted childishly, though it was an attempt to follow his macho talk to its logical conclusion.
I came here acting like a complete ass, though, and I've no excuse for that. Personal problems, etc...Anyway, I apologize to the readers and I do think Barry is doing a good job of providing us an updated "Elements of Style."
I won't be back this time, I promise.

Mindy Tarquini said...

*bows in Maryann's direction*

Signage and impact, along with linkage are my personal triggers. Stop using them, just stop. Just link to things. It's allowed. Otherwise, imagine a world in which people are fromage somewhere and wearing clothes means having garbage.

I thought 'sea change' meant a turn of tide. So a major change, not a wussy one. It doesn't?

WagerWitch said...

You're funny.

Barry Eisler said...

I can't tell you how comforting it is to know there are people out there who are at least as cranky about these things as I am... :-)

Hank, good points as usual about where these euphemisms are coming from. You're right, there are many factors, attempted bullshit being just one of them. BTW, for a brilliant, hilarious take on euphemisms, I highly recommend George Carlin. I think the man is a national treasure. I've listened to him reading ("performing" is probably a better word) three of his books on CD and have almost driven off the road laughing every time. He is insightful, merciless, and just so damn funny on this subject.

John R, I think you've caught me... I have been known to use leverage as a transitive verb. The dictionary says that's now okay, but they've got a definition for sea change and past master, too, so I'm not going to rely on dictionary presence alone. Glad you pointed it out.

Jim, you just described a significant part of Hank's and my former startup experience. At least we could laugh about the linguistic bullshit to keep each other partially sane...

Thomas, agreed, to me "like," and "you know" are the two most egregious offenses. For more, check out the little red and white prohibited sign on my home page...

Maryann, agreed on both impact and signage, and especially impact! "Impacted" as a verb has a specific medical meaning... so every time I hear someone use it as a verb, I imagine the object of their sentence as galactically constipated. But maybe that's what they meant...

Randy, I think you misinterpreted what I was saying. There was no hint of an ass-kicking in there, at least none intended. I meant exactly what I said, and stand by it: my sense is that people who are sarcastic or otherwise insulting online, especially people who post anonymously, would behave with much more civility face-to-face where there could be consequences to their rudeness. Consequences could certainly include violence if you insult the wrong person, but more commonly would include stares, discomfort, and ostracism. Now, if you're as condescending, sarcastic, and insulting in person as you've been here at HOTM, you would provide an exception to the rule. If you tend to be civil in person, though, then maybe the general rule applies to you after all.

Anyway, thanks for your gracious apology. Accepted, and I second LD's response. As I said before, if you like it here, you're more than welcome to stick around -- as long as you can rely on substance, rather than personal attacks, to get your points across.

MG, you're probably right about the origins of "sea change." I don't necessarily object to the phrase itself... more to its kudzu-like replacement of previous, perfectly adequate ways of expressing the same idea.

LD, my brother and I say "irregardless" to each so much as a joke that I'm afraid one day we're going to slip and use it in public. Hope you're not around when it happens...

David Terrenoire said...

How did we miss "impacted?" A wisdom tooth can be impacted, a business plan cannot.

Death Tax vs Estate Tax. Brilliant repositioning by the anti-tax folks.

Extraordinary rendition is an extraordinary way to spirit someone to an undisclosed location.

We don't interrogate prisoners, we interview subjects. So much nicer.

David Terrenoire said...

As to true verbal tics, I was unaware I did this until I'd heard in a radio interview. When I approached the end of an answer, I'd fall into saying, ellipses trailing behind, so


Barry Eisler said...

David, good calls on Death Tax/Estate Tax and renditions. I don't always object to the use of euphemisms, BTW; you might as well object to the use of communication. I just like to be conscious of the intent and effect behind the phenomenon. A few that George Carlin riffs on brilliantly are jungle/rain forest and swamp/wetlands. He says, "who would contribute money to saving swamps?"

Similarly, The Economist points out that one reason the world might be inadequately focused on global warming is that it sounds so benign. We like things warm, so it sounds comfortable.

A couple euphemistic mistakes that have amused me along the way: when the FBI named its email sniffing program "Carnivore." Guaranteed to cause objections no matter what the program actually consisted of. If they'd called it "Guardian Angel," it would have been swallowed up with a smile. "Total Information Awareness" was also a case of acerebral marketing. They might as well have called it Big Brother Is Watching You.

On the other hand, The Department of Homeland Security is brilliant. Imagine the response if the proposed name had been "State Security."

Alan D, I think there's actually a difference between illegal immigrants and undocumented workers, although the PC crowd has begun to use the latter to mean the former. Someone sent me an interesting email on the subject recently. LD, any thoughts?

David, I know what you mean about how one comes across on tape or video. It's a huge learning experience, and terribly humbling.

JA Konrath said...

Very very nice.

Barry Eisler said...



Anonymous said...

When a person begins a statement with the words, "To be honest with you..." I become completely turned off.
What am I supposed to do with the rest of what flows from their mouth? Is the person now asking me to begin to believe them when they have just told me that everything before this point may not be (or is not) true?
Or, is this the point at which I am now supposed to begin to take the person serious? What about everything that was said before this point? Was all of that a waste of my time?

Barry Eisler said...

Cary, I'm with you on the "To be honest with you...". Other odd ones are "No offense, but," and "Don't take this the wrong way, but..." and "Nothing personal, but..."

Anonymous said...

Whether many of these words or phrases bother me depends a lot on context, and even the body language of the speaker.

Dare I say it--I use the word "impact" incorrectly a lot, because it's understood by other people in a business context, and "affect" is too lame now in that culture. I'd come across as unassertive, and I can't afford that in my job.

What bothers me is when these words and phrases are used so liberally that it's clear the person using them is hiding something. Often, that something is their own ignorance and/or lack of confidence in their plan.

I'll even confess that I sometimes use the phrase "To be honest." I find I toss it out when I'm sticking my neck out. I am often in a position at work of saying things that nobody wants to hear. It's my job to say them and to convince people to change direction, even though I'm likely to be vilified at the time (and nobody thanks me later when it turns out I saved our butts).

If I sense the audience is too unhappy with what I have to say, out comes "to be honest." "To be honest, I understand you're under extreme pressure to toe this line. Here is what I hear you saying, and as a human being I agree with it. In spite of that, I'm asking you to cross the line for the greater good."

It's my way of going off the record to indicate I'm not trying to beat up on them. They're right because of the position they are in, and I'd just as soon go with the flow too. However, my role is to be the bad guy--their excuse for saying no to pressure they are under from people with far more authority than I hold. Sometimes it helps to remind them I'm playing a role, and it's not that I lack understanding or empathy for their position.

Much more effective than if I take a strictly adversarial "you're wrong, and I'm right" approach.

Barry Eisler said...

Alan and LD, maybe I'll start a separate post on immigration, which I've been thinking about lately (who hasn't?), and we'll take it up there. LD, I'll very much look forward to learning from your hands-on experience in that area, which you should feel free to bring up if appropriate.

Peregrine, agreed that a lot of the buzz words are used to try to cover up insincerity. Which they do -- like a combover covers up baldness...

And fair points on TBH and the like. Knowing your audience is key.

Mindy Tarquini said...

I'm tired of people saying 'But at the end of the day...' usually followed by 'all that really matters is...'

Coupled with 'The simple fact of the matter is...' makes me want to take up drinking heavily. Both phrases are ways to brush off 'the question at hand', another phrase which drives me bonkers.

Chris Matthews: Should the government be involved in the systematic extermination of corgis?

Random Republican: Look, Chris, at the end of the day, all that really matters is that corgis are dealt with effectively.

Chris Matthews: Yes, but should they be dealt with by systematically exterminating them?

Random Democrat: Look, Chris, we could talk about the question at hand forever, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Republicans have traditionally hated corgis.

Chris Matthews: Why won't you answer the question?

Random Republican: At the end of the day, what really matters is that the question was asked in the first place.

Random Democrat: And the simple fact of the matter is that this question doesn't get asked often enough.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Great post!

And cranky doesn't begin to describe my attitude toward the proliferation of the phrase "you guys." Instead of saying "girls," or "ladies," women (and sometimes men) now refer to a group of women, women and men, or just men as "you guys." Why is referring to a group of men as "you guys" acceptable, when it is not acceptable to refer to a group of women as "you girls"?

I understand why "Hi, girls," is an inappropriate way to address adult women - it diminishes their strength and wisdom - but what's wrong with "Hi, ladies"? And if it's acceptable to say "Hi, men," then why don't we say "Hi, women"?

But we don't. Instead we say:

"Hi, you guys!"

"I just really want you guys to understand...."

"You guys are soooooo wonderful!"

Excuse me, but I am not a guy. I am a girl (when I'm in the mood and only if I know you well), female, woman or lady. But not a guy.

Referring to groups of women, women and men, and men universally as "you guys," reinforces a standard women have fought against for decades: that women are lesser than men and should therefore be lumped underneath all categories designated "male" no matter the occassion.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

BTW, great comments, too. Like Peregrine, I've used the word "impact" as a verb in business (I never knew it was inaccurate), but I disagree with the logic that using "affect" instead makes the speaker sound weak. It's the same logic that compels people to say "utilize" instead of "use": words like these are believed to make people appear smarter and stronger. Although there may be times when we should use collaquialisms in order to be understood and believed, that doesn't mean we have to wallow in either inaccuracy or lazy speech.

Barry Eisler said...

MG, another one is, "The bottom line is...". Which I just saw used in a way I found hilarious. I might post on it tomorrow.

Elizabeth, welcome, it's good to meet you. I agree with your take on the causes of utilize vs use (lawyers are particularly egregious offenders on this one; they also like the fingernails-on-a-blackboard "mutual agreement'). There are so many others... "July timeframe" (means "around July")... I could go and on.

Not sure I agree about what's behind the proliferation of "guys," though. The equivalent of guy is gal, but for some reason gal seems to have fallen out of the lexicon. I wish it hadn't, because guy is such a useful word and we should have a female equivalent. With guy, you can avoid having to characterize a male as either a boy or a man, both of which have other connotations that you might not want to suggest. Without gal, we're forced to choose between girl and woman, which force the same connotative choices as boy/man. Lady is one way around the problem, but not a great way, I think, because lady, the equivalent of gentleman, has connotations of its own.

The solution, it seems to me, is to resurrect "gal," and I'm proud to report that for the last ten years I've been doing exactly this. It gets me odd stares from time to time, but I don't see another way. I've also developed a fondness for "y'all," which sounds strange with my New Jersey accent, but the language needs a gender neutral, clearly plural second-person form of address, and we northerners can't let southerners have all the fun.

Another regionalism I've borrowed is, "I reckon." There's just nothing like it and I refuse to let the fact that I wasn't raised in Montana deny me its pleasures.

And now a guilty admission: I wish we could still call gals... dames. We shouldn't have lost that one anymore than we should have said goodbye to good fedora hats.


Mindy Tarquini said...

I've also developed a fondness for "y'all," which sounds strange with my New Jersey accent, but the language needs a gender neutral, clearly plural second-person form of address, and we northerners can't let southerners have all the fun.

Barry? You're from Jersey and you don't know the clearly plural second-person form of address?

It's youse, pronounced 'used' as in 'all of youse.'

I use the word gals. And when last I checked, guys in some neighborhoods in Philly use the word dames, but only when kind of drunk and out of earshot of the ladies.

Barry Eisler said...

LOL! I forgot about the native New Jerseyan version of y'all. I'll have to give it a try.

And it's good to hear there's a part of Philly where the guys talk about dames. Next we'll be getting back to broads...


Mindy Tarquini said...

I'd credit Philly, not Jersey, for youse. Do they say it in North Jersey? I was thinking of South Jersey, Philly's largest suburb. I don't mind being called a dame, depending on who's doing the calling and whether or not I think they think that I can hear them, but call me a broad, anytime, anyplace, under any circumstance, and your lasagna won't be on the table anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Language is under attack from all quarters. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who pointed out at least some of the following from the world of advertising, where magical properties are attributed to a cigarette, a car, a bottle of whiskey, or a wristwatch: 'These items can provide us with personalities, they can guide us towards success and happiness.'
In Uruguay, during the 'seventies, Freedom, was the name of a jail for political prisoners. The word, 'love,' is used to define the relationship of a man with his car. 'Revolution' is understood to describe what a new detergent can do in your kitchen. 'Glory' is something that a certain smooth soap produces in its users. And 'happiness' is a sensation experienced while eating Chicken MacNuggets.

Barry Eisler said...

John, thanks for coming by and it's good to meet you. Those are hilarious, albeit painful, examples of the corruption of the language...

Anonymous said...

Great ideas for new forms of address, I'd certainly answer to "gals." It accomplishes all the same tasks as "guys," and doesn't diminish women. And "dames" has a really sexy, 40s-50s era, Frank Sinatra kind of romanticism. Love it! "Y'all"? Fabulous idea, why should the Southerners have all the fun! And, lest you Easterners have what's left of the fun, I'm even willing to introduce "youse" in the West.

But "broad"? I mean, really!

Barry Eisler said...

Okay, maybe I was being, er, overbroad there...


Master Plan said...

One that bugs me, used in this very blogging, is "Language is under attack from all quarters." and it's variations. The idea that language is being attacked by shadowy forces of Eeeevil or something. Something *more* sinister?

I'm sure at some point in the distant past, before books, schooling, etc, that language was pure and strong and nobody ever misused any terms, nor tried to apply them to new situations, they probably had specific words for everything back then. There was never any need for saying things like "and stuff" or "yah, know?"

I'd like to know when this golden age of language occured.

The web needs a specific font for sarcasm. I've applied some liberally to this post.

Bernita said...

Agree with you, Master plan, though the attack is not from the "eevil" - rather from the illiterate and unwashed, because, yanno, they corrupt the pure elixir that drips from the tongues of the Guardian elect.
~places back of hand on fainting brow~
Wotinhell is wrong with using nouns as verbs - and stuff?
Language is mobile, it changes or it dies.

Johnny Wong said...

And in case it has been overlooked we should consider this one: "going forward"

very popular with the Bush Administration, during all their wartime fumbles and lies, it was always, "and going forward we will...blah, blah, blah"

it suggests a certain impatience with the present, with conditions as they actually are and will continue to be, and more sinister yet, reveals a very American belief in progress, that we are continually and for ever "moving forward"... ugh.