War of Words
Andrew Ferguson has issues.
Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
It’s starting to dawn on me that my personal campaign to eliminate the use of the word issue to mean difficulty, misapprehension, disturbance, irritation, objection, and a dozen unrelated words is doomed. My parallel campaign against reaching out is probably in trouble too. Reach out is a cant phrase borrowed from the weenie world of personal-growth therapy and is now used as a verb meaning talk to and correspond with and solicit and comfort and invite and damn near everything in between. If you say you’re reaching out to me instead of calling me on the phone, you’ve managed to make a routine conversation seem like a sticky session with your encounter group. Why would you want to do that?
Yes, sure, language is a gloriously organic phenomenon that constantly changes and grows, develops new meanings as old ones slip away and all that stuff, but the point I’ve been making to an increasingly resistant—indeed, totally indifferent—nation is that the elastic use of words that once had sharper definitions tends to obscure rather than clarify meaning. In fact, that’s often the point—to deflect the reader’s attention from the concrete world of sense into a haze of feeling and abstraction.
I was stewing about this the other morning—welcome to my life—when I came across a pair of examples from a single article in the Washington Post. The Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau had reopened its inquiry into those bizarre allegations against Al Gore. The bureau was shamed into doing this because in 2009 the cops failed to take even the elementary steps required by an accusation of sexual misconduct, on the grounds that, well, this was Al Gore, and Al Gore is not “happy endings” material.
Did the bureau issue (verb form) a statement saying investigators hadn’t done what they were supposed to do? No, the statement said this: “We have determined there were procedural issues with the 2009 investigation.” Procedural issues? What they meant was, “We’re reopening the investigation because we didn’t do one.” See? If the word issues hadn’t been so corrupted, so stretched beyond definition, the cops would have found it harder to slip the hook. Maybe.
And so now they want to talk to Al Gore. “I can confirm that the Portland bureau has reached out to us,” oozed a Gore spokesman, as if she’d been asked for a donation to the Policeman’s Benevolent Association. The definition of reach out has now been expanded beyond invite and solicit to include call Al Gore and ask him whether he jumped a middle-aged masseuse. That’s one big phrase you got there, Al.
At least these nonce usages of issues and reach out have some meaning—too much, you could say—that might be teased out from their context. More and more, however, I stumble upon sentences, entire paragraphs even, from which I can extract no sense whatsoever. I read and reread and nothing happens; neurons fall into deep freeze. Often I’m reading the New York Times Book Review.
The psychologists call this aphasia, I think, but I have decided that the fault lies not in the reader’s brain but the writer’s words. Try this, from a recent review: “Human beings are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them. . . . Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words.”
Beyond words—you can say that again. Sentence by sentence, this paragraph makes no sense to me, and the context, which I combed through for hints, is no help. How do choice and meaning get intertwined? The vogue word choice has, I know, replaced decision as absolutely as the gooey conversation has replaced the straightforward discussion. (Conversation is the new dialogue.) And meaningful, as in “it was a very meaningful experience,” has been unavoidable for a generation or more. When some people want to describe an experience that struck them with considerable force for reasons that are obscure to them, they call the experience meaningful, which means they don’t know what the experience means. Meaningful, in its current state of exhaustion, is meaningless.
There was a time when an editor might have been able to take the reviewer aside and, drawing on the work of those prickly logical positivists, point out that the sentence “Human beings are born to create meaning” has no content, if only because its opposite, “Human beings are not born to create meaning,” could never be proved not to be true. That would have been an editorial argument (not conversation) worth hearing.
But today? The editor might simply assert he has an issue, the reviewer will respond by reaching out, and the sentence, in all its mesmerizing meaninglessness, will stand.
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