Joseph Epstein contra voguishnessJul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.
Joseph Epstein sees himself through four eyes.Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Of late, the last four years or so, I rarely go out for long without being praised. I am praised not for my writing, my perspicacity, my elegant bearing, my youthful good looks, my extreme modesty, but for my eyeglasses. “Nice glasses,” strangers say to me. “Like your glasses,” they say. “Love those glasses,” is a refrain I hear at least once a week. “Where did you get those glasses?” people wearing glasses of their own often ask me. “Thank you for your kind words about these glasses,” I have taken to answering. “They are my best feature.”
Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Our friend and contributor Joseph Epstein once called himself a “serious dilettante,” which he defined as “someone who feels he needs to know nearly everything, but not all that much of any one thing in particular and certainly nothing in the kind of depth that will weigh him down.”
Erich Auerbach and the understanding of literature. Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
T.S. Eliot thought that the first requisite for being a literary critic is to be very intelligent. The second, I should say, is to have a well-stocked mind, which means having knowledge of literatures and literary traditions other than that into which one was born; possessing several languages; and acquiring a more than nodding acquaintance with history, philosophy, and theology—to be, in brief, learned. To be both highly intelligent and learned is not all that common. Eliot claimed for himself—and this by implication, for he was a modest man—only the former.
From ‘student-athletes’ to ‘worker-athletes’?Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The great American fraud that dare not speak its name, though anyone who owns a television set is aware of it, is college athletics. Amateur though they are supposed to be, the only thing truly amateur about them is that they do not pay the (supposed) students who play them, at least not directly.
Joseph Epstein, gluten-free.Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Men, it is said, do not like to go to doctors. Clearly I qualify here. I have long considered myself a Christian Scientist, minus the Christian part. A realist in my taste in fiction, I am a fantasist in my views about physiology. I prefer, that is, to pretend that I do not have such organs as a liver, spleen, and kidneys, and like to think of the duodenum as a doo-wop group from the late 1950s.
Joseph Epstein coins a conditionDec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The Nobel Prize in Medicine has already been given for this year, but I should like to get a jump on next year’s prize by describing and naming a mental condition from which untold millions suffer. The condition is not anything so devastating as dementia. Most people who have it manage to work around it.
The shrewd eye, and elegant prose, of Red Smith. Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The best writing in newspapers, it used to be said, was in the sports pages. Variously known as the toy department or the playpen or the peanut stand, its interest restricted to matters of supreme inconsequence, the sports pages allowed the people who filled them more latitude for the prose equivalent of fancy footwork. In sports, after all, not that much was at stake: men in funny costumes batting a ball around—or, as in football and boxing, batting one another around—or running round tracks, on foot or in machines or atop horses.
Joseph Epstein on the wisdom of the dumb phone.Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Cell phones today in America are of course endemic, if not epidemic. On one of the thoroughfares in the youthful neighborhood in which I live, I can sometimes walk an entire block without passing anyone not on or gazing down at or thumb-pumping his or her cell phone. Everyone has seen three or four people sitting at a restaurant table, each one of them on a cell phone. Or a young couple who should be looking longingly into each other’s eyes looking instead into their cell phones.
What is the humor in Jewish jokes? Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
'Two Jews, each with a parrot on his shoulder, are in front of a synagogue,” Hyman Ginsburg begins to tell his friend Irv Schwartz, when the latter interrupts.
“Hy, old pal, don’t you have any jokes that aren’t about Jews?”
Ginsburg replies that of course he does, and begins again: “Two samurai meet on a dark night on the outskirts of Kyoto. The next day is Yom Kippur . . .”
A famous/notorious novel yields its progeny. Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
A succès de scandale if ever there was one, Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s fourth book of fiction, will soon be 45 years old. At the center of the novel’s scandalousness, which recounts the 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy’s reporting to his psychoanalyst the emergence of his repressed desires growing up in a middle-class Jewish home, was its emphasis on masturbation, or “the secret vice,” as the Victorian medical encyclopedias used to call it.
The gimlet eye of Saul Steinberg.Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
At a celebration at UCLA of the career of Eugen Weber, the Romanian-born historian of France, I made the mistake of describing Eugen as an exile. In his response to the tributes paid him, Eugen corrected me, remarking that he had never considered himself an exile. “From the moment I attained consciousness,” he said, “I wanted to leave Romania. The place is a dump.”
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