A blood-spattered trip through today's lamentable lingo

Feb 10, 2012
Alexander Cockburn

Into the tumbrils with 'sustainable', 'iconic', 'parse', 'narrative' and, last but not least, 'closure'

BACK in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse pointed out in one of his books that the Pentagon had given up on verbs. The dialect known as Pentagonese consisted of clotted groups of nouns, marching along in groups of three or four. Verbs, which connected nouns in purposive thrust, were regarded as unreliable and probably subversive. They talked too much, gave too much away.
Despite the Pentagon's best efforts, linguistically the Sixties were a noisy and exhilarating era. The Seventies gave us the argots of feminism and queerdom and then suddenly we were in the wastelands of Political Correctness, where non-white people were described as being "of colour", cripples became "less-abled" and sexual preference (non-heterosexual) became LGBTQ, though another capital letter may have been added while my back was turned.
Where are we now? Irritating words and terms spread across the internet like plague through a European town in 1348. There's something very passive about the overall language and a look through one's daily inbox is like walking along a beach piled with decayed words and terms. There's much more ill-written prose than there was 30 years ago.
Here's my check list of degraded words and terms that should be loaded into the tumbrils and carted off to the guillotine.
First up: sustainable. It's been at least a decade since this earnest word was drained of all energy, having become the prime unit of exchange in the argot of purposeful uplift. As the final indication of its degraded status, I found it in President Obama's "signing statement" which accompanied the whisper of his pen when on New Year's Eve – a very quiet day when news editors were all asleep - he signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) for 2012 which handed $662bn to the Pentagon and for good measure ratified by legal statute the exposure of US citizens to arbitrary arrest without subsequent benefit of counsel, and to possible torture and imprisonment sine die, abolishing habeas corpus.
As he set his name to this repugnant legislation, the president issued a "signing statement" in which I came upon the following passage: "Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists…"
So much for sustainable. Into the tumbrils with it.
Next up: iconic. I trip over this golly-gee epithet 30 times a day. No warrant for its arrest is necessary, nor benefit of counsel or trial. Off to the tumbrils, arm in arm with narrative.

These days everyone has a narrative, an earnest word originally recruited, I believe, by anthropologists. So we read "according to the Pentagon's narrative…" Why not use some more energetic formulation, like, "According to the patent nonsense minted by the Pentagon's press office…" ?  

Suddenly we're surrounded by 'narratives', all endowed with equal status. Here's a good example of its baneful penetration into the language, in a Reuters news story: "[Senator] Rubio initially cast himself as the US-born son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. That narrative ran aground when records surfaced showing that his parents actually had left Cuba years earlier."

Rubio is caught telling a big lie, and it gets demurely tricked out as a "narrative". Into the tumbrils with it.

I think the parse craze has almost run its course, though occasionally this shooting star of 2011 is to be spotted panting along in some peloton of waffle from the Commentariat. Here's a typical misuse from a blogger: "Can you blindly root for Tim Tebow on the football field without, in turn, tacitly rooting for him in life? … Are Broncos fans able to parse the player from the man, the quarterback from the evangelist?"

Off with its head, along with meme, an exhausted little word that deserves the long dark rest of oblivion..

Let me toss in the odious project, initially favoured by the left but now in general currency, attached to almost every human endeavor. Also conversation – a way of taming all debate and doctrinal struggle into demure prattle. And let us note and deplore the meteoric rise of existential,  which appears to be 'going viral'.

Also, any headline modeled on It's the economy, stupid. This tedious phrase derives from the Clinton campaign of 1992, and is still echoing on opinion pages 20 years on. To the tumbrils with it!
Then there's Well…, as in constructs such as "His performance was, well… frankly bad." Here it is in the first paragraph of Paul Krugman's New York Times column for January 27: "Mitch Daniels, the former Bush budget director who is now Indiana's governor, made the Republicans' reply to President Obama's State of the Union address. His performance was, well, boring."

Equally awful is Er..., as in "Is Angeline Jolie a great actor? Er… no."  The British are particularly keen on this piece of stylistic coyness.
Staunch, as so often used to describe right-wingers: "a staunch Republican", "a staunch Conservative", though not, I think, "a staunch fascist". I see left-wing writers using this phrase freely about Republicans and Conservatives. Don't they know that "staunch" carries the aroma of unstinting, courageous loyalty? It's an honorific. How about "fanatic Republican" or "crazed Conservative"? No right-winger would talk about "staunch liberals" – admittedly an oxymoron, just like "staunch Democrat".  Now, there really are staunch pacifists. Save the word for them.
At the end of the day, which, I need scarcely remind you, is the hour when the fat lady sings, after the rubber has met the road. The fat lady line was first popularised in George H.W. Bush's run for the Republican nomination in 1980. When he finally threw in the towel, the press corps hired a fat Valkyrie with a horned helmet to rush up to him and sing at the top of her voice, waving a trident.

I urge the fatal blade for grow, now mutated as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in "grow the economy". I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about "growing the economy" was at gale force.
Joining grow in the tumbril will, I trust, be blood and treasure, used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America's wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson and even Cromwell, but that's no excuse. The catch-phrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure.
Shackled to blood and treasure should be its co-conspirator, in harm's way, with boots on the ground also in the tumbril.
Among those pressing Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to haul in harm's way into the dock is my brother, Patrick, who is also trying to shove 'go-to person' into the tumbrils. I use this phrase from time to time and felt a twinge. Fortunately, Patrick changed his mind, writing to me, "I have rather changed my mind on 'Go-to person'... 'Sejanus, becoming known as the go-to person in the court of Tiberius' - Easy to mock, but is there a word or phrase conveying the same idea? I am not sure there is and uncertain Fouquier-Tinville would have been wholly satisfied that it was a case for the tumbril."
There can be no debate about if you will, a particular favourite of the CNN crowd. The phrase serves the function of a pre-emptive apology every time the reporter or commentator makes something approaching a substantive statement. The late Christopher Hitchens used it a lot, archly. Off it goes to the tumbrils.
It's time too for clôture on closure, beloved of American families mustered in front of prisons on execution day. It's an odious word, fragrant with fake feeling, with the cold breath of an undertaker lowering the coffin lid.

This just in from my friend Doug Lummis, who lives in Okinawa: "Alex, The bottom line is, to the tumbril with the bottom line. I think it was about 15 or 20 years ago, suddenly everybody was talking about 'the bottom line'. I asked around, The bottom line to what?  Nobody seemed to know. On the bottom line of a letter is the signature. On the bottom line of an invoice is how much you owe. In fishing, I suppose a bottom line will be good for catching bottom fish. In the language of seduction, presumably the bottom line will be something obscene. In comedy, it would be the punch line. But in politics there is no bottom line, because there's always the next page. Doug Lummis."
Let's close with the summary execution of community. In the Sixties they didn't talk about "the intelligence community". They do now, which tells us all we need to know.

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Saved me the job! And can I also sling on:

concerning - when they mean 'worrying, but concerning is more posh

offensive - when they mean someone I haven’t met who (I probably just made up for the purpose of being disagreeable, because I can't be bothered to produce a reasoned rejoinder) might be offended by it, if they were a bit thick or in a bad mood or oversensitive

respect - as in respect for family life, 'respec' and Blair's Respect agenda

oh, and


I like Fry, but was he really not aware by the age of 40 that politicians shade things to make them look good? He must have heard of JFK at least surely?
One of my favourite 'hates' to come out of America - I'll be with you momentarily. For me the word momentarily has always meant briefly/for an instant/temporarily. Why not say,"Very soon"?
Might is most certainly right, and the mighty can be identified by  characteristics that vary and need not have any commonality. Who but the mighty would dare to refer to African- Americans as black Americans - only the mighty dare do that. And what are the African/Italian/Irish/ ... Americans - just partly American and partly something else?
Teflon Tony? Really no WMD's found in Iraq following a bloody and pointless war / civil war and insurgency. Hardly Teflon for many years, just that he remains with powerful friends and generally stays in US doing the lecture circuit.
My bete noise?

"We expect XYZ to improve.. going forward."

I hated the phrase "going forward" the first moment I heard it. Blustered to sound dynamic and forward-seeking, it's smug, safe, vectorless, voguish and vague conveying not an iota of quantitative value.

We expect XYZ to improve.. within the next 3 months."

Ah! Information!
I quite agree with Charlie Merlin, and was so annoyed by the now everywhere use of 'momentarily' to mean IN a minute rather than FOR a minute that I checked with the dictionary only to find, to my horror, that the dictionary had itself given up.  The on-line version thus erases the distinction by having tacked "shortly' and 'very soon' onto the original list that included 'fleetingly,' briefly, 'for a short time' and 'temporarily.'   So--oops there goes another nuance in the language.  The other word that I see heading for the tumbrils when we really need to keep it is "infer."  More and more, it is dropping out of articulation and the meanings that distinguish it from 'imply'  becoming subsumed beneath it.   With instruments like Email, Facebook, and particularly Twitter, I fear that we will be likely to lose more and more such words that point to seemingly slight but actually quite crucial distinctions that English has always been so rich in providing. . .
The use of the present perfect in preference to merely the simple past by every sports commentator alive and the astonishing rise of "back in the day" instead of something more precise are starting to really piss me off

Not only 'going forward', but also the inevitable corollary of 'putting it behind'.
Which in political terms, means, "Can we forget about it, it's embarrassing?"
The phrase I've come to loathe over the last two years is 'do the right thing' or 'doing the right thing'. It was quite refreshing when David Cameron started to use it, I think in the run up to the last election. However, it has now become totally debased, and is tacked on to more-or-less every utterance of all British politicians. Away with it!