Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
For the Love of Cliché
By Aaron Belz
November 8, 2013
Why do the rhetorics of business, politics, academia, and journalism develop their own dialects? We might assume forward-thinking leaders in each vertical would want to keep their respective vocabularies, how shall we say?—“impactful.”
Cliché and jargon perform a valuable service to the extent that they enable us to more easily traffic complex or nuanced concepts. “Word around the campfire” and “water cooler gossip” are fair ways of describing a particular type of office buzz. These phrases mean something to “the team.” But cliché is better known for being harmful, reflecting laziness and even boredom with its subject matter. “At the end of the day” such considerations do matter, because the way we speak reflects, fundamentally, who we are.
Lauren Collins’s “Mother Tongue” column in the November 4 New Yorker (inspired by Robert Hutton’s new book, Romps, Tots and Boffins) explores the way jargon calcifies around journalism, particularly its headlines. “The language of the news, like Latin or C++, has no native speakers. But reporters are sufficiently well-versed in it,” she writes, and she provides a number of humorous examples. Words like “churn,” “mull,” and “nab” remain frequently employed news headline verbs while they’ve waned in other usage. On the other hand, terms like “in-vitro fertilization,” Collins points out, were born in the headlines and have since spread to common parlance like, well, “Mad Cow Disease” or “Swine Flu.”
Journalism’s unique handling of language has long been the target of parody. Collins’s discovery is not newsworthy and, were it not for Hutton’s book, perhaps not even columnworthy. Stan Freberg used to nail journalistic and political jargon all the time (“Mayor Pennypacker Comes Out for Equality! Justice! Votes!”), as did Monty Python (“No, I’m sorry, there isn’t time—we’re just going straight over to Luton”). Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have done their part too (the latter’s notorious “leave it there” skewering of CNN jargon stands out).
The Onion is also notorious for news headline satire. Since its founding by a pair of college students twenty-five years ago, The Onion has called out tired journalistic formulas, most hilariously the vapid construction “area man.” The Onion’s “Politics” section is routinely loaded with headlines that promise double satire of political folly and newsroom stylings. These range from the relatively tame (“Republicans Give In Right Before ObamaCare Would Have Been Repealed”) to the lethal (“Congressional Aides Withholding Sex Until Budget Compromise Is Reached”).
No doubt such pranksterism offends certain sophisticated readers, but it does have value. In August, when NPR covered The Onion’s 25th anniversary, Editor-in-Chief Will Tracy reasoned that its approach could continue indefinitely because, “There’s still awful people doing awful things every day.” His implicit editorial goal, to confront and expose human awfulness (including awful headline composition) by apparently participating in it, is also the chief end of satire—to correct ignorance and foolishness by proposing that they continue and in greater force. That irony may be lost on readers prone to interpret texts at so-called face value, but it is a potent force for good, as ample historical satires, such as Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” illustrate.
Why is it so important to protect language from cliché and other abuses? For one thing, language is radically important in the Christian worldview—so important that God himself is described as “the Word,” his son “the Word become flesh.” God’s law, as handed down to Moses, is verbal. One whole hemisphere of God’s self-revelation is verbal. For another, language is of the highest order in the United States, in a sense superseding individual humans. Each American citizen, regardless of social, economic, or political stature, is subject to the same Constitution, judicial decisions and opinions, the same rule of law. While we may be comfortable with ambiguity and artfulness in poetry or Facebook comments, we do not accept the same coming from a judge. We believe in perspicuity (look it up), and in pursuit of it we purge writing that is poorly constructed, misleading, or lazy.
And perspicuity, though literary critics question whether it even exists, is language’s greatest ambition.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”