DISCUSSING THE LATEST SIGHTING of a dimly remembered sixties pop star, my local paper cautioned: "Make no mistake. Lesley Gore's certainly no kid anymore."
Given that a recent photograph of the 59-year-old singer accompanied the article, it was hard to see how anyone could be mistaken about Gore's age. Best known for her 1963 hit "It's My Party (And I'll Cry if I Want to)," the well-preserved but incontrovertibly middle-aged Gore had been out of the public eye for years, and was now hawking a CD that was unlikely to go platinum.
Make no mistake: She had been away for 43 years. Make no mistake: She did not look like a kid. Make no mistake: It was unnecessary to warn anybody to make no mistake about any of this.
Every so often, an exquisitely vacuous expression--"All sizzle, no steak," "Style and substance," "Where's the beef?"--enters the popular press, and then begins stalking the Republic. Consider the campaign to attribute every political, economic, and cultural misfortune to "hubris," a word the public never uses, doesn't like, and almost certainly doesn't understand. Few pundits can resist such banalities as "poster child" or "holy grail" or "tsunami," and even sportswriters get into the act with such misbegotten phrases as "the mother of all kickoff coverage breakdowns." Rare is the columnist who fights off the urge to warn that "the center cannot hold." Fifty smackers to anyone who can identify the second most cited line by Yeats.
The most devastating verbal casualty of the Iraq war is the media's seduction by the juvenile expression "the bad guys." Inspired by politicians who speak like seven-year-olds, even commentators such as Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times have been known to pen columns under the rubric "Rooting for the Good Guys."
Is it possible to imagine Winston Churchill or FDR rallying his countrymen to the cause this way? "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Well, that and the bad guys." "Never in the course of human events have so many good guys owed so much to so few other good guys." "We shall fight the bad guys on the beaches. We shall fight the bad guys in the hedgerows. We shall never surrender to the bad guys."
Vacuous as this expression may be, it is generally used in a vaguely appropriate context. Not so with "make no mistake," which surfaces everywhere, usually warning readers in nearly hysterical tones to make no mistake in situations where it is unlikely that a mistake could occur, or where, if it did occur, the repercussions would be impossible to detect.
"Make no mistake," warns the Wall Street Journal. "Stagehands perform a vital job, one that requires more than muscle." Well, I guess. "Make no mistake," thunders The Tennessean. "People who smoke need to stop." Yes, again. Adds a physician in a letter to the New York Times: "Make no mistake--there are doctors outside of retainer practices who will guide some of their patients through the difficult process of finding the right treatment."
Well, of course there are doctors outside of retainer practices who will guide some of their patients through the difficult process of finding the right treatment! How could anyone make a mistake about that?
Blessed with the imprimatur of George Bush I, who used the expression to affect a Ciceronian grandeur, the phrase now appears everywhere. Why? In large part because it is an underhanded way of clinching an argument without having to prove your point. "Make no mistake," thunders Bob Herbert, another New York Times columnist. "Government officials have blood on their hands." This is a variation on the beloved old chestnut "Take it from me." But for every American who will take it from you, there are an equal number who won't. Especially if you're Bob Herbert.
In fairness, most uses of the phrase "make no mistake" are merely pathetic efforts by second-tier journalists to play in the big leagues, to make an assertion that sounds like something E.J. Dionne or Philippe de Montebello might say. This is particularly true of sportswriters, who yearn for perceived gravitas.
"Make no mistake," chides a beat writer for the New York Post. "This trade does not represent an abandonment of the youth program the Rangers embarked on at the 2004 trade deadline and has been implemented so successfully by (Coach) Renney and his staff." Adds Ian O'Connor of the Gannett chain: "[Roger] Federer might carry himself as a gentleman in a top hat, but make no mistake: In the heat of competition, he's the Iceman cometh, as forbidding and efficient in presence as the Soviets' old Big Red hockey machine."
Here the formidable gasbag has scored an improbable hat trick: first, by telling readers what they already know (the greatest living tennis player likes to win); second, by inserting a pointless analogy likening one sport to another; and third, by commandeering a rapturous banality to make a phoned-in article about men's tennis sound like the Gettysburg Address.
Readers may protest that I overstate my case, that the exhortation to "make no mistake" is no more irksome or ubiquitous than "edgy," "rock my world," or "let's give props." Perhaps. But what concerns me is the Polonius Syndrome: An inane phrase starts out innocently at the loftiest journalistic levels, but then wends its way downward, so that before you know it you have food critics declaring, "Make no mistake: Polenta is quite bland." Or rock critics grumbling, "Make no mistake: Jimmy Buffett's music has little appeal to the hip-hop community." Or meteorologists warning, "Make no mistake: If it rains hard enough, everybody gets wet."
It is not the inanity per se that is the problem; it is the repetitive, inescapable nature of the idiocy that drives intelligent people mad. As Lesley Gore might put it: You would cry, too, if it happened to you.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.