Friday, February 02, 2007

Verbal Abuse

Most of what I do for a living is use the English language -- as I learned it. And if language is the currency of thought, then I am very afraid for the future of America -- as I knew it. My current discomfort is brought about by having worked from home today with cable and local TV news on in the background.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ most quoted Supreme Court opinion applies to television newcasters: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” As applied to television, the result is a maelstrom of mass imbecility in which average people who are quoted speak in cliches that they have learned from TV newscasters, who, historically, learned them from newspapers. But what broadcasters learned from newspapers was not from the articles but from the headlines. Thus were born words like “nabbed” and “hiked,” which were created only to fit the width of one newspaper column but wouond up infiltrating the spoken language. And that is how so many nouns got be verbed.

We have become a nation taught to speak, and think, by blow-dried, blowhards bloviating bromides on TV. All I could tell about the tornadoes in Florida was that they “sounded like a freight train” and that what tornadoes leave behind “looks like a war zone.” (I haven't seen any war zones, and I doubt most anyone has, though until impeachment occurs more of us will have the opportunity. I did wake up one night in California after a small earthquake, and the first thing I wondered was "why is a freight train going through the hotel lobby?")

I also know from television that sometimes a Midwestern tornado or a silo explosion “sounded like an atomic bomb.” I have not really been that curious about what an atomic bomb sounds like, but if I am, I think I will go tornado-hunting and report back. I am pretty sure, though, that victims and survivors of the only two atomic bombings would say they never heard a fucking thing.

So, the Florida tornadoes, as with their cousins all over the continent, “completely destroyed” everything in their “wake.” One day I wish to see something that is only partially destroyed. As I would like to see – just out of morbid curiosity – a nonbrutal murder, or even just once hear a TV newsperson recognize that no killing is ever a “murder” until a judge or jury makes that determination. All the rest are homicides, or, if you must, “killings.”

Closely related to the “brutal murder” are the ones committed against “innocent girls.” Joe Biden opened up a long-needed discussion about the ugliness of “articulate” as a description for white-sounding blacks, but where is the discussion of “innocent” as a condition that makes one “murder” more “brutal” than another? When we hear of “innocent bystanders” being blown up in the Middle East, how do we know they are “innocent?” Innocent of what? And shall we then assume that some people who are not innocent are more deserving of “brutal” death?

In between tornado news were political reports, which like crime and sports writing lend themselves to clichés. How many times must we learn that Hillary Clinton is “sucking up all the oxygen in the room” or “sucking up all the dollars?” And why is she the only Clinton about whom that word can be used on national TV?

How about those Republican commentators who, having lost the argument about global warming, cannot bring themselves to use that phrase, preferring instead “energy security,” a relative of the Republican “food insecurity,” which used to be just plain “hunger.” Aha, you Republicans will say: Democrats pollute the language, too, in service of tax increases. But you would be mostly wrong. It was Republican tax raisers who tried to deny their perfidy 20 years ago by calling their actions “revenue enhancements.” And they were the ones who tried to "pacify" Vietnam by killing Vietnamese and who employed "strategic redeployments" while they were actually cutting and running.

Brace yourselves. It is going to be a rough weekend, what with the Super Bowl, which didn’t start out as super at all, but became so at about the same time box-office bimbos and Jesus Christ became “superstars,” but shortly before Sports Illustrated bestowed “super” as a description of the models that interrupt the flow of sports essays every February.

Pay attention. For players on both teams, “it is time to step up.” The winners will “leave it on the field.” When all else fails to describe the ambiguities of life, such as why Rex Grossman is allowed to wear a football uniform, count on a sportscaster to proclaim: “It is what it is.”

I have gone on long enough and I hope to have composed this posting with “good success.”

But probably “not so much.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:13 AM

    I fear that our news presentation, once the envy of the stiff upper lipped, is going down the same route,Ira.

    It does rather depend which channel you watch in the UK, our television having a different background to your own with the state financed BBC always traditionally being the flagship for good practices. Even they have had the two newscaster concept for some time and although the standard is not quite as cliche driven as your post suggests US TV news may be, one still gets the impression of an Elaine May/Mike Nicholls 'love in' sketch from time to time.

    By far the best of our news services is Channel 4, independent, focused and hard hitting and a channel on which politicians hate to be grilled.

    By far the worst, and evoking the kind of 'wham bam ooh aah' populist style which makes me cringe is Sky News whose newscasters seem to fall over themselves in an attempt to be hip, cool 'personalities'.

    Not surprisingly the channel is owned by Rupert Murdoch, as of course is 'Fox News' - need I say more ?

    Brian F