Back in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse pointed out in one of his books that the Pentagon had given up on verbs. Pentagonese consisted of clotted groups of nouns, marching along in groups of three or four. Verbs, which connected nouns in purposive thrust, were regarded as unreliable and probably subversive. They talked too much, gave too much away.
Despite the Pentagon's best efforts, linguistically the '60s were a noisy and exhilarating era: "bitchin'." The '70s gave us the argots of feminism and queerdom, and then suddenly we were in the wastelands of political correctness, where non-white people were described as being "of color," cripples became "less-abled" and sexual preference (non-heterosexual) became Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Questioning, though another capital letter may have been added while my back was turned.
Where are we now? Irritating words and terms spread across the Internet like the plague through a European town in 1348. There's something very passive about the overall argot and a look through one's daily inbox is like walking along a beach piled with decayed words and terms. There's much more ill-written prose than there was 30 years ago.
Here's my checklist of degraded words and terms that should be loaded into the tumbrils and carted off to the guillotine.
First up: "sustainable." It's been at least a decade since this earnest word was drained of all energy, having become the prime unit of exchange in the argot of purposeful uplift. I found the final indication of its degraded status in President Obama's signing statement — which accompanied the whisper of his pen, such as on New Year's Eve, a very quiet day when news editors were asleep — when he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which handed $662 billion to the Pentagon and, for good measure, ratified by legal statute of the exposure of U.S. citizens to arbitrary arrest without subsequent benefit of counsel and to possible torture and imprisonment sine die, abolishing habeas corpus.
As he set his name to this repugnant legislation, the president issued a signing statement in which I came upon the following passage: "Over the last several years, my administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists..."
So much for "sustainable." Into the tumbrils with it.
Next up: "iconic." I trip over this golly-gee epithet 30 times a day. No warrant for its arrest is necessary, nor benefit of counsel or trial. Off to the tumbrils, arm in arm with "narrative." These days everyone has a narrative — an earnest word originally recruited, I believe, by anthropologists. So we read "according to the Pentagon's narrative..." Why not use some more energetic formulation, such as "According to the patent nonsense minted by the Pentagon's press office..."? Suddenly, we're surrounded by "narratives," all endowed with equal status. Into the tumbrils with it.
Here's a good example of its baneful penetration into the language, in a Reuter's news story: "(Sen.) Rubio initially cast himself as the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. That narrative ran aground when records surfaced showing that his parents actually had left Cuba years earlier."
Rubio is caught telling a big lie, and it gets demurely tricked out as a "narrative."
I think the "parse" craze has almost run its course, though occasionally this shooting star of 2011 is to be spotted panting along in some peloton of waffle from the commentariat. Here's a typical misuse from a blogger: "Can you blindly root for Tim Tebow on the football field without, in turn, tacitly rooting for him in life? ... Are Broncos fans able to parse the player from the man, the quarterback from the evangelist?" Off with its head, along with "meme," an exhausted little word that deserves the long dark rest of oblivion.
Let me toss in the odious "project," initially favored by the left but now in general currency, attached to almost every human endeavor. Also, "conversation" — used as a way of taming all debate and doctrinal struggle into demure prattle. And let us note and deplore the meteoric rise of "existential," which appears to be "going viral."
Any headline modeled on "It's the economy, stupid." This tedious phrase derives from the Clinton campaign of 1992 and is still echoing on opinion pages 20 years on. To the tumbrils with it!
"Well...," as in constructs such as "His performance was ... well ... frankly bad." Equally awful is "... er," as in "Is Angeline Jolie a great actor? Er ... no." The British are particularly keen on this piece of stylistic coyness. I also pass sentence on the hiccupping "well" construction. Here it is in the first paragraph of Paul Krugman's New York Times column for Jan. 27. "Mitch Daniels, the former Bush budget director who is now Indiana's governor, made the Republicans' reply to President Obama's State of the Union address. His performance was, well, boring."
What's coy, little "well" doing in that sentence?
"Staunch," as so often used to describe right-wingers: "a staunch Republican," "a staunch Conservative," though not I think "a staunch fascist." I see left-writers using this phrase freely about Republicans and Conservatives. Don't they know that "staunch" carries the aroma of unstinting, courageous loyalty? It's an honorific. How about "fanatic Republican" or "crazed Conservative"? No right-winger would talk about "staunch liberals" — admittedly an oxymoron, just like "staunch Democrat." Now there really are staunch pacifists. Save the word for them.
"At the end of the day," which I need scarcely remind you is the hour when the fat lady sings, after the rubber has met the road. The fat lady line was first popularized in George H.W. Bush's run for the Republican nomination in 1980. When he finally threw in the towel, the press corps hired a fat Valkyrie with a horned helmet to rush up to him and sing at the top of her voice, waving a trident.
"Bad guys," "This ain't my first rodeo;" "just sayin'," "really." One sees the terse "really" all too often. It's time for the final haircut.
I urge the fatal blade for "grow," long sought in its mutation as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in "grow the economy." I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about "growing the economy" was at gale force.
Joining "grow" in the tumbril will, I trust, be "blood and treasure," used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America's wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson and even Cromwell, but that's no excuse. The catchphrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure.
Shackled to "blood and treasure" should be its co-conspirator "in harm's way," with "boots on the ground" also in the tumbril.
There can be no debate about "if you will," a particular favorite of the CNN crowd. The phrase serves the function of a pre-emptive apology every time the reporter or commentator makes something approaching a substantive statement. The late Christopher Hitchens used it a lot, archly. Off it goes to the tumbrils.
It's time, too, for cloture on "closure," beloved of American families mustered in front of prisons on execution day. It's an odious word — fragrant with fake feeling — with the cold breath of an undertaker lowering the coffin lid.
Let's close with the summary execution of "community." In the '60s they didn't talk about "the intelligence community." They do now, which tells us all we need to know.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.