Learning to Count

The Speech of the Oh So Wise

I’m mildly interested in politics and yet feel incompetent to say anything about it. The politicians themselves and pundits seem to say enough, or more than enough. What I am interested in The Word and words.

Thomas Franks' recent essay in Harper’s Weekly, entitled “Broken English,” tackles the worn out cliches of political speech — words often divorced from a context that has been forgotten, making them seem oddly misplaced if you know their original context. He also attacks contingent-speak, as when a commentator or politician says “one might argue” such and such, a distancing effect, “an extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject.” He concludes that this oh so wise usage is “a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere.” This kind of roundabout speech, always with an escape hatch, is, he says, intended to cue the audience to the presence of a professional, or an elite if you will, one undoubtedly “complicated.” Right.

Do me a favor: If you hear me talk like this, call me on it. This ranks on my list of barely tolerable speech, like that of publicists and music business A&R people who always tell you what you want to hear, and then quietly act otherwise. Or people who seem unable to commit to a date (dinner, Friday?) because something better may come along and they may be left out (FOMO). Say what you mean people! Say it with love, if you can, but say it.

My parents didn’t speak like this. They never said “It might be a good idea if you cleaned your room.” It was just “Clean your room.” They also never said “one might argue that doing your homework is a good idea.” Just “Sit down and do your homework.” Their directives were few (actually, clean your room was not on the list) but. . . well. . . direct, meant to be obeyed. Indeed, words were often unnecessary; the code was written on my heart. (Ok, so I didn’t always obey, but there was no contingency.)

Which brings me to cliches, the refuge of the pundit and politician: Stop. Like “lay down a marker.” Heard that enough? Users of the phrase, Franks notes, have no idea that it originated in gambling parlance, likely popularized by a famous line from a musical, Guys and Dolls, where “the gambler Nathan Detroit utters this famous line: ‘A marker is the one pledge a guy cannot welsh on, never.'” All of which gives enhanced meaning to the statement that “voting for such and such politician may be quite a gamble.” Or how about when pundits talk about one politician “eviscerating” another? Really? Disembowelment? It’s an over-the-top husk of a phrase that should be consigned to the word dump. Somewhat tongue in cheek Franks concludes that all of “[t]his lingo is the jittery patter of a would-be democratic aristocracy, utterly incapable of introspection and yet better than the rest of us in every way.” I can't listen.

There. I’ve said nothing about politics and something about words. But I leave you with the unstated biblical truth of what Franks is saying: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). Simple-speak is disarming and refreshing. Indeed, one might argue that this biblical exhortation is good advice.