Tuesday, June 19, 2007

`Mortified Language'

Spoken clichés are annoying but sometimes forgivable. We can be charitable and assume the speaker is tired or confused, at least the first time. All of us slip, and a conscious life devoted to the vigilant avoidance of clichés would be indistinguishable from madness. So, let’s ignore the mindlessness of “Cool!” as all-purpose punctuation and the presumptuousness of “No problem!” in response to “Thank you.” It won’t be easy, but let’s be strong, and after all it’s the written cliché by people who ought to know better that’s truly bothersome.

Go here to read about the Infuriating Phrases Competition sponsored by the Telegraph. The newspaper asked readers to compose paragraphs dense with verbal rubbish. The winning entries, though submitted largely by English readers, sound remarkably familiar to American ears – an unforeseen consequence of television and the Internet, I suppose. Only a few phrases were new to me, and none sounded particularly “English.” I suspect the Telegraph contest, admirable though it is, will have little impact on anyone’s habits of speech, even in the land of Shakespeare. Ranting about clichés has, as they say, a fabled past. In his chapter in Cultural Amnesia devoted to Karl Kraus, a world-class aficionado of clichés, Clive James writes:

“His satirical attack was based on the analysis of clichés: in politics, in the arts and above all in journalism. He did for German what Swift [see his Polite Conversation] had once done for English, and Flann O’Brien would do again. Nothing got past him. He was a one-man watch committee, the hanging judge of the sottisier. Anyone who let slip a loose phrase lived to rue it if Kraus caught him. As the self-appointed scourge of self-revealing speech, he was a linguistic philosopher before the fact, a blogger before the Web.”

We wish more bloggers wrote like Kraus, who gave us the following aphorisms, taken from Harry Zohn’s translations in Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half-Truths:

“Journalists write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write.”

“The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.”

“The most incomprehensible talk comes from people who have no other use for language than to make themselves understood.”

Flann O’Brien, writing in mufti as Myles na gCopaleen, was keeper of the Catechism of Cliché. O’Brien was less cerebral than Kraus, but funnier and comparably savage. This comes from The Best of Myles:

“A cliché is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the incidence of the same situations in life. If this be so, a sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language.

“Is not the gun-history of modern Ireland to be verified by the inflexible terminology attaching to it? A man may be shot dead but if he survives a shot, he is not shot but sustains gun-shot wounds. The man who fires the shot is always his assailant, never his attacker or merely the gun-man. The injured party is never taken to hospital but is removed there (in a critical condition). The gun-man does not escape, even if he is not caught; he makes good his escape.

“Oddly enough – unnecessary phrase – a plurality of lawbreakers behave differently; they are never assailants but armed men. When they are not caught, they do not make good their escape; they decamp. If there be defenders on the scene, shots are exchanged. And the whole affair is, of course, a shooting affray. You see, there is no other kind of affray. If it is not a shooting affray, it is not an affray at all. But it might be a fracas.”

How striking that most of the Irish clichés cited by Myles remain current in the United States after 60 years. This substantiates the unstated moral of Cultural Amnesia: The impoverishment of language, intentional and otherwise, is insidiously omnipresent. It’s easier to express oneself with recycled persiflage than it is to carefully match word to thought. James devotes chapters to such professional language-corruptors as Hitler, Goebbels and Trotsky, and such defender-purifiers as Kraus, Lichtenberg, Wittgenstein and Evelyn Waugh. In the Lichtenberg chapter he writes:

“If language deteriorates in journalism, the damage will be felt sooner or later in writing that pretends to more distinction.”

James, a journalist, is not being a snob. His motive is pragmatic and ultimately moral. Too much “style,” often understood as the opposite of dull, lazy, cliché-ridden prose, is not the answer. Later in the same chapter, James writes:

“To make an idea come alive in a sentence, some of its words must be left for dead: the penalty for trying to bring them all alive is preciousness at best. If such preciousness is not firmly ruled out by the writer, there will be readers all to keen to supply it.”

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