By Jerome Long
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we didn’t have a war so we had to invent one. Some bright politician decided we ought to have a “war on illiteracy” to make up for this shameful deficiency. It sounded good, anyway.
Guess what? Illiteracy is winning.
It is a subtle conflict, to be sure. And the enemy consists of those people who ought to know better. Specifically, the intelligentsia, including academics, and most glaringly, journalists. Now I am not calling the press or journalists the enemy of the people. I will leave that to others. But journalists can certainly be the enemy of good writing. I exclude lawyers from this group for two reasons: they get paid to eliminate ambiguity or to create it, depending upon the client’s desires. Secondly, whether lawyers are members of the intelligentsia is a subject often debated. I exclude physicians from this group, as well. Because no one can read their handwriting, it doesn’t matter what they say.
So the real bad guys are, then, journalists and teachers. Their weapon of choice is the idiom. With idioms these enemies of clarity confuse others, unjustifiably magnify their intelligence, and pretend they’re cool and in the know, and just generally annoy the rest of us. Let me illustrate with a few examples.
How often have you heard the phrase “boots on the ground?” Whenever I hear this phrase, I imagine row upon row of footwear lined up on a football field. Of course, this is intended to convey, rather, an estimation of military personnel ready to respond to an emergency. I think. Why is it not possible to say “soldiers on the ground?” I’ll tell you what happened. Once, a junior officer was briefing his superior and for reasons unknown used the phrase “boots on the ground.” His superior officer responded saying “boots on the ground. Hey, that’s good. Use that in your briefing to the press. They will think it’s catchy and will start using it because they’re basically lazy slugs. And then we’ll all get a good laugh.”
Thus, thinking they’re cool, reporters and then the rest of us started using this misleading and annoying phrase to excess. When you think about it, in a national emergency, wouldn’t you rather have soldiers on the ground and not merely their boots?
I first heard the phrase “listen up” when my company commander screamed it into my ear in recruit training. My personal opinion is that unless you have gone through recruit or basic training, you don’t have the right to use this phrase at all. So there.
Why are we “reaching out” so much? I’d rather not be responsible for somebody’s strained back or shoulder when they attempted to “reach out” to me. I’d rather they simply picked up their telephone and dialed my number. Are users of this phrase trying to be picturesque or gentle in some way? Don’t reach out to me. I might slap your hand. Just call. Leave a message if you feel the need.
Another of my pet peeves is the person who talks about having “skin in the game” or “a dog in the fight” or something similar. If someone says that he or she has skin in the game, I’m sure we can all generally agree that they have an interest in the outcome thereof. Why can’t we just say that? Again, we’re implying that we’re cooler than we really are. We only say such things when we are terminally boring.
“Moving forward” involves an exercise in general relativity. Einstein showed that we could “move forward” in space-time but that we could never “move backward.” And yet, that is exactly what “moving forward” implies. Can’t we just say “in the future” like we used to “back in the day?”
Ah, yes. “Back in the day.” What day are we talking about, precisely? Yesterday? Two weeks ago? Tuesday? When we were children? I think “back in the day” refers to the past. Instead of saying “in the past,” we use “back in the day” because we heard it on TV. We have so little imagination or are so lazy that we literally let others speak for us. They put their words into our mouths, and we let them get away with it.
The use, or abuse, of these idioms does not indicate how intelligent we are. When we overuse them, as has been the case over the past few years, we only say to the world “this is how lazy I am.” They indicate insecurity and a lack of intelligence. We can do better.
Jerome Long is a retired attorney and sometimes freelance writer living in Wisconsin where the temperature never varies beyond -40 and 110F. He is a frequent visitor to Ecuador and Cuenca.