I won’t denigrate that with a response

This title is an actual quote, and not by Archie Bunker, Moe from the Three Stooges, or Slip from the Bowery Boys (Does anyone besides me remember the Bowery Boys?). It was actually one of the elected officials we pay to make decisions that affect our lives.

I’d find this funnier if it were unusual, but it seems to be part of a trend. People seem to slot words into spaces where they weren’t designed to fit. Sometimes it’s blatant misuse, as in denigrate for dignify. Sometimes it’s phrases that sound good when you first hear them but on closer examination don’t make any sense (Advertising is good at this). Words are becoming filler, like someone who buys art because the color matches his sofa. The room looks fine when you walk in, but if you really look at that painting do you have any idea what it’s trying to tell you?

Of course maybe the problem is me. Maybe I just don’t understand what’s clear to everyone else. Let’s look at a couple of examples that I’ve picked up in the course of a week or two and you can see for yourself.

It’s time you deserve more

This was from a radio commercial. I can’t remember the product. I’ve pondered it for a while and tried to warm up to it but I can’t do it. Taking it from back to front, I certainly understand ‘you deserve more.’ I probably don’t agree with it, but the question of what we all think we deserve vs. what we really deserve is a topic for a future date. ‘It’s time’ seems clear enough. It is generally the opening clause to some form of action, e.g. ‘It’s time to go,’ or ‘It’s time you grew up.’ But ‘it’s time you deserve more?’ I suppose what they were trying to get across is that you, the potential consumer of whatever it is they’re peddling, have worked hard, etc., and now deserve it. I think they should have just gone with ‘you deserve more,’ and left the timing to take care of itself.

Don’t let your financial future pass you by

This is from a poster at the metro station selling some sort of financial product. We both know what they’re trying to say. So why don’t they say it? The missing word here is opportunity, as in ‘don’t let the opportunity to secure your financial future pass you by.’ How can a future, financial or otherwise, pass you by? By definition the past becomes the future via the present. You can’t be passed by something that is always in front of you. Ask Mitt Romney.

A legacy of history

If the first two examples didn’t impress you this one has to do it. It was on an advertisement for a week dedicated to recognizing the contributions to society of a minority group. It listed a number of this group’s positive qualities, including that it has a legacy of history. Merriam-Webster gives one definition of legacy as, “Something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past.” The same dictionary gives the definition of history as, “Events of the past.” So another way to render this particular slogan is, “Events of this group’s past come from someone in the past.” Somehow I don’t think that one would have gotten through the committed that designed that monstrosity.

If your search results don’t accurately represent what you want others to see…

This is one of my favorites. It comes from a radio commercial for a company that promises to remove all those pesky facts from your past that show up on the internet. This one is different because I think it’s actually an extremely careful use of language meant to obfuscate. Note that it doesn’t promise to accurately represent anything that actually happened. It essentially uses language to suggest that your opinion is fact. It’s a great use of the word accurate. If George Orwell fans gave a Ministry of Truth award this one would have my vote.

Where the cost of living is more living than cost

I saw this one on a sign that I believe was advertising an apartment complex, but to be honest I’m not really sure what they were selling. I had a fair amount of time while waiting for a train to ponder it. I understand what they’re selling, which is what the people who paid for the ad are looking for. I suppose they’d wonder what my complaint is. More on that at the end.

Last and final boarding call

Why do they do this? Every airline seems to use this same announcement to tell you there won’t be any more boarding calls. Do they want to suggest that if it’s only their last, or their final, boarding call there might be hope for another one? Do they not know that this is the same as saying it is their ‘last and last boarding call,’ or their ‘final and final boarding call?’ I’ll throw in one of my other favorites here, also…too. I hear this a lot now, as in, “I’m also going to the store too.” I suppose the next step will be to also add an ‘as well’ too.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss…

This one is all over and also more than a little Orwellian. This is a little like saying that he confessed to the murder anonymously because he isn’t authorized to kill people. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. I can understand why they say it this way. It gives a whistle-blower aura. The person telling the secrets is courageously trying to save us, the public, by giving the intrepid reporter the facts in the face of great personal risk. While that is sometimes the case, more often the secret is minor and I suspect that the real reason for spilling it is to cultivate a relationship with the reporter and anonymity is more often the refuge of a coward than a hero.

So why does any of this matter? At the micro level, it can be extremely frustrating to those of us who are still willing to try to pick words that actually convey the message we want to send. People who are sloppy with what they say don’t generally listen well. They often lie in wait for some trigger word or phrase to pounce on and bury your point under a steaming pile of harangue.

At the macro level it’s symptomatic of a world where what matters in a disagreement is emotion rather than facts or logic. Emotion is an important complement to facts and logic, but it is in danger of becoming a substitute. It’s certainly fine to have passionate beliefs, but holding them in the face of the facts is dangerous.

Sloppy, vacuous language is the potato chip of mental nutrition. It’s not only bad in and of itself, but also because of what it crowds out. Specific, carefully selected language is much more effective in conveying meaning than sloppy, vague, or incorrect language. If you don’t think this matters, then I think you’re wrong. And if you don’t think I have a right to that opinion, I won’t denigrate that with a response.

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