Archive for October, 2012

Embargo on Shopworn Words

I’ve spent hours listening to television anchors and following election debates, and  confess that I am a political junky. Watching the news in recent decades is like being on a junk food diet. Overexposure to newscasters has bludgeoned my ears with the lackluster language that typifies public discourse. Certain words are so pervasive that I want to call for an embargo on their further use. Among them are amazing, incredible, awesome and literally. They are fill-in-the-blank words when a speaker has nothing worthwhile to say and feels the necessity to fill in the dead air that would result from his lack of anything cogent to contribute.  More than that, many public figures grasp at the vacuous word because it is the only one at their disposal in their vapid vocabulary.  I factor in also the anti-intellectual streak in American society, which has an aversion for  speech that smacks of the ivory tower. Complex thought entails a more complex rhetoric and use of logical construction.  These expository skills are in short supply in television journalists. Certainly, our era is not one of great oratory.

Then there is the repetitious, predictable speech patterns of, for instance, Wolf Blitzer. I’ve lost count of the times he uses as well as. During the primary coverage and debates, I kept a stroke tally sheet of the words and expressions he repeated ad nauseam. After a while I abandoned the effort. Erin Burnett loves the word literally. I groan every time she utters the word. Because I recognize the fact that language evolves, I accept that, at least since the mid-twentieth century, its usage as an intensifier to mean really, actually is common; but its constant use still irritates me. Why not use completely or thoroughly, which is what the speaker means? Anderson Cooper likes to sigh unbelievable or incredible after a news report.  What is unbelievable about the facts a journalist in the field has investigated and just reported on national television? Is the listener to suppose that the network would air unbelievable or incredible news?

Other expressions that are so worn that even a set of retread tires would not help are: the bottom line and at the end of the day. Those two are pulled out of the air so often that I don’t have the energy anymore to groan when I hear them.  Please add your own shopworn words and expressions to my list.

Expansion of a student’s vocabulary is an educational objective that used to receive more attention. Its emphasis was based on the premise that thoughts cannot be expressed effectively without sufficient vocabulary.  Students need to develop the ability to think before they can have thoughts to express in speech or written composition.  Both skills–of critical thought and of effective expression–are probably acquired in tandem–through practice, pattern recognition, and repetition like any skill.  I fear that at the foundation of the lackluster language that I find so pervasive lies both a dearth of critical thought and an educational system that has not fostered expository writing. Logic and the habit of critical thought produce the quality of oratory, public discourse and debate that typified other periods.

When I taught in high school a few years ago, I overheard an English teacher use the word awesome in conversation with a student. The word awesome particularly irked me, because it habitually showed up in my student papers. I had a discussion with this teacher later in which I argued that teachers have the role to elevate the vocabulary of students and that they should not use slang and hackneyed expressions as a matter of course even during informal conversations with them. She argued that teachers must relate to their students and build rapport by sharing their lingo. This stance on the part of some teachers has contributed to the dumbing down of American society in the last thirty years.