God Save the Queen’s English

Over the past dozen years or so, a certain herd mentality seems to have evolved surrounding our use of the English language.  Dismayingly, the trend has been particularly pronounced among some who use language as a primary tool of their trade.

Political reporters fell in love with the word “gravitas” in the early 2000s, and for a while it seemed reporters couldn’t describe a politician without a reference to his/her gravitas or lack thereof.   Gravitas seemed mainly bestowed by the reporters themselves and directly proportional to the recipient’s number of appearances on their respective networks’ Sunday morning talk shows.  A few years later, the word “ultimately” and the phrase “in the final analysis” were universally discarded by these same reporters and replaced by “at the end of the day.”  Reports even on events occurring in early morning hours were scripted to include a brief summation, a summation invariably introduced by the obligatory “at the end of the day…”    More recently, we have been assaulted by repeated use of the word “withering.”  Thankfully, the reporters are unaware of all but two circumstances in which the word can be cogently used:  as a modifier of “attack” or “criticism.”  Every single report we see concerning a verbal attack by one politician upon another makes reference not to just an attack.  It has to be a withering attack.  And even the slightest criticism must always be withering criticism.  One could offer a million dollar reward, with zero risk of having to pay it, for recent footage of a reporter discussing criticism without calling it withering.  Reporters seem compelled to use these same descriptions repeatedly, until they have drained every ounce of freshness and originality from them…and still they use them, and continue to use them, until the newest fad word comes along.  One can’t help but wonder if the practice is somehow tied to their compensation.

Sports reporters have their own, seemingly proprietary, affectations:  the appropriately specific phrase “in this game” is apparently verboten.  Instead, we hear, “on the day,” as in, “Manning has thrown three touchdown passes on the day,” the meaning of which is now, due to incessant usage, widely understood by viewers, but it must have caused mass confusion the first few times it was heard.  Worse, no viewers will ever get to hear, “Georgia Tech needs to make this third down conversion.”    Rather, we must sit through, “If you are Georgia Tech, you really want to make this third down conversion.”  While such wordy nonsense might slightly lessen the frequency of momentary “dead air” broadcasts, the image of a single listener morphing into an entire sports team, even analogously, is difficult to conjure.  I ain’t Georgia Tech, you dumbass.  Nor is anyone else.

But it’s not just the professionals; most of us have been guilty.  When I was in college, every assent, however mundane, had to be expressed as “all right!”–often with two or more verbal exclamation points.  Approval or admiration could only be expressed as “groovy,” to be later replaced by “neato.”  To speak otherwise invited social peril so horrible it was not contemplated.  The now concluded, TV series “Breaking Bad” curiously spawned among its viewers (and apparently everyone they knew) a habit of speech that rapidly became ubiquitous to the point where even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary may be forced to accommodate it:  the habit of beginning every third sentence with the word(?) “Yo.”  When that fad eventually dies out, one can be sure a little of each of us will die with it.

Using sexual language to describe other pleasant sensations, such as taste and beauty, is currently in vogue, i.e. “That cheesecake was orgasmic.”  I rather like this particular trend, but so beautiful a word as “orgasmic,” unlike orgasms themselves, should not be overused, lest it become stale or trite, and die thusly.  I suggest moving on to the somewhat more descriptive “ejaculatory, “ a word thankfully no longer confined to the realm of male sexuality.  “Sensuous” could be replaced with “erogenous,” at least while we collectively see how it feels.   And I’m sure there are others.

One particular subset of today’s society, the gay community, has a reputation, stereotypical or not, for leading the way in entertainment, fashion, art and other pleasures.  More recently, they are adding a new dimension to our lexicon as well.  Once the masters of subtlety and nuance, they now seem to be trending toward absolutism in certain word choices.  Strong adjectives now modify demonstrative pronouns:  “This is dear,” and “that’s fierce.”  The pastels of their language are giving way to bold colors,  a celebratory expression perhaps, of the community’s newfound acceptance by the world at large, which by the way has been a damned long time coming.  This trend is probably a good thing, if for no other reason than gay people deserve to finally feel comfortable making themselves more visible.  But I suspect it is, like other trends, only temporary, and the preference for nuance, which is after all more indicative of enlightenment, will return.  To show solidarity in the meantime, I think I shall follow their lead and at least for a while cast out the pastels of my life and become more bold…uh, I mean fierce.

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