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Unsentimental Journey

Joseph Epstein contra voguishness

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In past years I have taken to print to attack two words—focus and icon—that drove me bonkers. Focus, a metaphor from the world of cameras and microscopes, replaced the words concentrate and emphasize. Suddenly everywhere ballplayers lost their focus, students were encouraged to find theirs, schools, companies, nations began focusing on this or that problem. Hocus-pocus, I used to -mutter to myself, please, drop the focus. Nobody did, and the word today has still not lessened in popularity. 

In its original meaning icon was a small religious painting used as an aid to devotion. In its new meaning, persons, cultural events, inanimate objects became iconic. To be an icon was, apparently, a step up from being a superstar, as superstar was a step up from being a mere star. The word icon became part of the vocabulary of hype, and was used so often that it no longer carried any weight or absorbed the least truth. Awesome, you might say, but then again the matter mightn’t be of any interest to you. Whatever. 

Focus, icon, awesome, whatever, all are among what H. W. Fowler, in his great but surely not iconic book Modern English Usage, calls vogue words. According to Fowler, 

every now and then a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness or a merely potential and not actual existence, into sudden popularity. It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can. .  .  . Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality. The title of this article is perhaps enough to show that the second view is here taken. 

On the way to becoming a vogue word an ordinary word is often transmogrified into a metaphor. Consider window, which appears frequently these days in the trappings of window of opportunity, a metaphorical bit of glass that, you will have noticed, keeps endlessly opening and closing. Or the new meaning of narrative, which used to mean a connected account of events but now means, roughly, my story the way I want it told, or rather spun. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, poor Monica Lewinsky writes, “I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.” In the same article she blames the Clinton administration, Kenneth Starr, and the media, who “were able to brand me. And that brand stuck.” Branding is of course another vogue word; it means something like setting your own image (a vogue word of an earlier day), deciding how you or your candidate or corporation wish to appear. Talk to any recently minted MBA for more than 10 minutes and branding, like a Tourette’s tic, will pop up. 

The latest vogue word to ignite my ever flammable ire is journey. I first noted the voguish use of this word four or so years ago when the 37-year-old daughter of an acquaintance of mine was undergoing the tortures of breast cancer: chemotherapy, nausea and weakness, hair loss, depression, the full catastrophe. When I asked this man how his daughter was doing, he answered that it was “a journey.” Having cancer in one’s thirties is no journey; it is instead wretched luck, horrible and hope killing. 

When he used the word journey to cover the torments his daughter was going through, it was evident that for this man the word was, somehow, consoling. Journey, in its vogue word incarnation, is of course pure psychobabble. The advent of the word in its voguish form comes from the false wisdom holding that the effort to attain them is more important than any goals one might reach in life. How much easier for this man to say that his daughter’s suffering is a journey than to describe in sad detail the nightmare she was going through. Some words, Fowler writes, owe “their vogue to the ease with which they can be substituted for any of several different and more precise words,” and journey is surely, is egregiously, one.

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