Paul Greenberg

Alexander Kuzmin, the young can-do mayor of an oil town in Siberia, has barred his staff from using certain phrases. They’re the kind that have become the bane of citizens who have to deal with bureaucrats anywhere.

For example: “I don’t know,” “I can’t,” and “It’s not my job.” Plus a dozen or so others. They’ll be familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with bureaucrats in this country, too. Or at least their lackluster spirit will be. There’s that old standby, “We’ll get back to you.” And my own personal favorite: “I just work here.”

Any staffers who give folks the run-around in Mayor Kuzmin’s town “will near the moment of their departure” from city hall, warns the mayor.

What a pity the offending phrases themselves can’t be fired from the language.

Any editor will have his own, ever-growing list of annoying banalities that he’s grown tired of blue-penciling — from moribund metaphors (ducks in a row) to suspect superlatives (the best and brightest).

Robert Hartwell Fiske, the perpetually irritated author of “The Dimwit’s Dictionary” has compiled a long list — indeed, whole books — of such dimwitticisms. No wonder he always seems in a foul mood. Imagine spending a lifetime compiling examples of language gone stale.

Joseph Epstein, who may be the best essayist America has going at the moment, has called Fiske “a fanatic, an extremist who apparently believes that clear language is our only hope for clear thought, that dull language deadens the mind and dampens the imagination….” Or as Mr. Epstein sums it up, hackneyed language just plain makes life drearier than it ought to be.

I’ve never met the gentleman, but Mr. Fiske sounds like my kind of guy. I picture him perpetually banging his head on his desk as he reads this stuff. There’s something to be said for that reaction. It relieves frustration, restores the circulation, and may not be nearly as painful as quietly enduring a cliche that was fresh in about 700 B.C. No wonder editors walk around with that punch-drunk look.

Some writers seem to think only in a chain of cliches, as if they had lost the capacity for original thought or experience. When suspect phrases are used together, or maybe even woven into one endless loop of non-thought, they’re particularly deadening:

“He got his ducks in a row so everyone would be reading from the same page in response to the hue and cry from the administration’s best and brightest.”

That’s the sound of language, and therefore thought, running in idle.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.