It's a perfect storm: The 2007 "List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness" has surged with phrases authored by wordsmiths to make their sentences pop. They are what they are, but by now have decimated their effectiveness and ought to be thrown under the bus or, at the very least, waterboarded.
Besides most of the above paragraph, this year's list includes nonwords like "webinar," overstretched words like "emotional," and next-to-meaningless phrases on the model of "___ is the new ___" (e.g., "70 is the new 50").
The List, a product of Lake Superior State University in Michigan, debuted in 1976 with "macho," "meaningful dialogue" and "at this point in time." It originated not in the English Department but in the Public Relations office, the brainchild of Director Bill Rabe, who saw it as a way to distinguish LSSU. Released every New Year's Day, the Banished Words List has become an opportunity for literary curmudgeons everywhere to vent a little spleen. Nominations are now being accepted for the 2008 collection; to submit your pet peeve, see lssu.edu/banished.
My own pet peeve, which made a previous list, is "literally" used as an intensifier-almost the opposite of its real meaning of "non-figuratively." But before picking up stones to throw at certain talk-show hosts I could name, I must remember how, speaking of a Christian widow of my acquaintance, I referred to her as "literally without a head." Meaning spiritual head, of course. Arggggh!
Hackneyed phrases have been a-coining as long as people have been a-talking, but the sheer proliferation of talk-on 24-hour news networks, three-hour radio shows, podcasts-has greatly expanded the shop for the shopworn. Writers succumb as often as talkers: Do I meet my deadline or strive for sparkling originality? That's a tough one-please pass the meaningful dialogue.
The current meaning of the word cliché is fairly recent: My 1975 edition Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a "stereotype block"-a metal cast obtained from a wood engraving and used to make prints. The relationship between cliché and stereotype is interesting, as is the fact that the words are still closely related even as their meaning has become metaphorical.
Banished words die slowly of old age or quickly of exhaustion, unless they pass through gates of Webster and achieve immortality. They do no harm in everyday conversation. But when complex issues are being discussed, threadbare expressions encourage threadbare thought. Phrases can't be inked and stamped indefinitely without losing some of their meaning. How many times during the current political campaign have we heard about "change" or "change agents" or "making change"-as if the candidates were vying for control of a subway booth instead of leadership of the free world? What is meant by "change," or "hope," or "climate of fear," or "tax cuts for the rich"?
Imagine James Madison addressing the problem of "faction" (the subject of Federalist No. 10) in today's hackneyed terms: "If, in the wake of our unprecedented Revolution, we continue the politics of personal destruction instead of coming together in a spirit of bipartisanship, the royalists will have won."
The bad thing about cliché in public discourse is that it flattens subtlety and discernment. Political debates are sloganeering fests. The words don't engage; understanding does not take place. Either we find ourselves agreeably reflected in each other's stereotypes or we put up shields to deflect them-and mirrors and shields are equally hard to penetrate. Instead of iron sharpening iron, glass scratches glass.
Even worse, arguing by cliché is like building a bridge with preschool blocks. If we only listen to what certain candidates say, and never analyze their deeds, our decision must necessarily be based on logic that can only be stacked one way and depends on one force only-the evil of the opposition.
Blocky argument shapes blockhead decisions. We may be in for a perfect storm.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org