A quick pitch for verbal clarity



Have you ever heard the protestation “There’s no such thing as a bad boy!” It’s what a doting grandmother might say, at least in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What did my grandmother really mean? Probably something like “There’s hope for him yet.” That was true, although it’s false that there’s no such thing as a bad boy.

Among their other failings, bad boys are given to using “bad words.” Why the scare quotes? Because while words— and phrases—can be used badly, there aren’t any bad words. That said, in these days of sharp linguistic decline, with total collapse not far off, we’d do well to consider verbal infelicities. If what follows is instructive, gentle reader, when next we catch a falling slogan or cliché, we’ll be less tempted to put it in our pocket and more likely to efface it from memory.

Let’s focus on verbal infelicities that are often well-intentioned. Here’s a starter. People, in the hope of knowing who they are, can be keen to learn where they come from. Enter the profitable “genetic search engine.” Part of the pitch of one such company includes a frightfully sincere young fellow telling us that “We all come from such different backgrounds.” But we don’t. Counterexamples are a dime a dozen. Sisters and brothers come from the exact same background. Full-blooded Irish people, like full-blooded Chippewa, share the same background.

Next comes another well-intentioned entry. “Share your truth with us.” But none of us, regardless of the story we have to tell, owns the truth. Nor is sharing “half-truths” a community service.

Speaking of truth, we often go wrong with what’s meant to be a modest disclaimer. “What they say about the Mayor isn’t necessarily true.” Well, no. But nothing of interest about the Mayor is necessarily true. What might be of interest, and more, such as “He’s civic-minded” or “He’s robbing us blind,” might be true. But neither is necessarily true. It’s dull stuff, such as “He’s either at his desk or he’s not,” or “He’s either a wily rascal or he’s not,” that’s necessarily true. Only truisms are necessarily true.

Oftentimes, perhaps to make the truth palatable, we say that an action is “inappropriate.” Fair enough, if it’s a Bronx cheer at a solemn moment. Lamentable, though, if we’re speaking of insulting the pope or, for that matter, the prophet. The too easy “inappropriate” too often covers a multitude of sins that should be named for what they are.

Now it may be that many of us “don’t feel comfortable” with calling a spade a spade, but feelings of comfort or discomfort are best expressed when trying on new shoes or testing a mattress. The language of moral analysis ought not to be reduced to describing one’s comfort zone.

Of course in championing verbal clarity over verbal infelicity, “none of us is perfect.” But that’s no excuse. It’s a truism. Seriously.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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