Minds Running in Idle

Posted: Oct 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Minds Running in Idle

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.

Then there’s the popularity of overused punctuation, like the ubiquitous quotation marks that now smudge the language like flyspecks. They show up on signs, in contemporary prose, in ads, and even in the air (air quotes). They’re used for purposes for which they were never intended, including emphasis.

The other day, those inverted commas popped up in a letter from John White, chancellor of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus, to its newly hired Athletic Director, Jeff Long:

“You will recall our discussion of the special role Razorback athletics plays for the State of Arkansas,” wrote the chancellor. “Arkansans consider themselves ‘winners’ when the Razorbacks win….”

Why the superfluous quotes around winners — to indicate skepticism? That’s why they’re sometimes called scare quotes or sneer quotes. But surely that’s not the purpose in this case. Any outward show of skepticism on the chancellor’s part about the central place of football, our state religion, in Arkansas’ psyche would be heresy.

Maybe the quotes are there to signal that the chancellor is using a metaphor — lest we be too dense to realize it on our own.

Or maybe, as I suspect, the chancellor in his own vague way is using the quotation marks around “winner” to indicate more than just success in an athletic contest but a whole attitude toward life — an attitude that encompasses not just winning a game but pride, achievement and confidence in general. As in a winning personality.

If that’s what he meant, why not say so? For the same reason teenagers of all ages take refuge in mental shorthand (“whatever”) when words fail.

Am I making too much of the importance of language? I don’t think anyone can. On that subject, I share Robert Hartwell Fiske’s fanaticism.

By now quotation marks are used out of habit, just for the heckuvit — not only around a direct quotation, where they belong, but as decoration in general. Like so many curlicues on Victorian houses, furniture, stationery, anything. They have become the most over-used and under-needed of all our linguistic symbols, spreading like a plague of measles, settling over the language like a swarm of gnats.

It’s all enough to make an editor wish that, like the mayor of a little Siberian oil town, he had the power to ban annoying linguistic habits. Perhaps if Mayor Kuzmin ever tires of his day job, he could apply for one as night copy editor for a morning paper. He seems to understand the problem.

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