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Meaningless Words

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I’ve ranted about the wanton devastation of the English language that occurs on the internet. Words being truncated far beyond accepted contractions, and so on. But there are far worse offenders lurking else where.

“This session is aimed at altering your general thought process when implementing national security and corporate investigative and intelligence techniques. Attendees will be challenged to think above and beyond their own perceptions and taught to embrace a mindset that will allow them to deter possible threats more efficiently and effectively.”

Lifted straight from the pamphlet of someone named Tyrine Fairman who gives lectures on how to conduct yourself on public transit due to potential terrorist threats. These are not sessions geared towards special agents working for the government, but to the general public.

What purpose is served using language like that? Does he, or whoever he had write it, think that it makes him sound more impressive? Or is he simply trying to disguise the fact that he’s not saying anything original? I’m not sure because I can’t seem to work up the energy to try and understand what it means.

What kind of people refer to introductions as “an identity affirmation exercise”? Usually the people who run those oh-so-popular team building workshops that the corporate world used to be (and maybe still is, for all I know) so keen on.

You know the ones, middle management types are taken out and dropped in the bush or some other isolated location. Once there, they go through a program of workshops ranging from the embarrassing to the ridiculous, all with the aim of increasing productivity back at the home office. The usual result was more likely to be resentment at being deprived of a weekend, or simply from having to do the damn thing in the first place.

It’s Friday evening after a hard week at the office and instead of sitting at home in relaxing, you’re standing in the foyer of some hotel with a bunch of people you sort of know listening to this:

“What is about to be engaged with here is essentially a paradigmatic prospective assemblage intended to render a dynamic orchestration of employee energistics across multiple vertices.(pause for breath)Through a system of non-apparent motive vehicles, we will seek to initiate from within the disintegrated participatory constituents an innovated focus-drive generating a core-gravity that will channel exertory critical impulses along complementary and bi-reflexive vortals”..

There are actually three words in there that Microsoft’s dictionary couldn’t recognize. Now to be fair, the above is from a novel by one of my favorite Scottish authors, Christopher Brookmyre, called Be My Enemy. But any of you who have had any involvement with these human resource types will recognize that it’s not too far removed from reality.

Is there a purpose served by this bizarre manipulation of language, aside from confusing the hell out of anyone listening? The only thing I can come up with is that it is a type of mass hypnosis. Everyone listening, or reading, this stuff is tuning out and shutting down, making themselves susceptible to suggestion. How else could you explain a group of middle management types hopping up and down like bunnies while singing rhymes about their fears and ambitions? I just made that up, but I’m willing to bet something similar has been experienced by participants.

I don’t know how many of you have had the opportunity, or misfortune, to hang out with a group of new age types. Unfortunately there have been occasions where I have been forced into those very circumstances. You can’t be involved in the practice of complementary medicine and not swing the proverbial cat without hitting one.

I have yet to figure out which is worse; their oversimplification of the answers to all of life’s problems, or their means of expressing it. What exactly is the “healing effect of the white light of love and goodness”? Or “go to the light?” Are they telling me to stand in the middle of a dark highway and walk into somebody’s high beams?

I can’t tell you the number of times I have wanted to grab one of these people by the shoulder with one hand and slap them across the face with the other in a attempt to bring them back to reality. They pick and choose little bits of any and everybody’s religion without any comprehension of what it really means and spout it like it’s some amazing secret that has been revealed only to the chosen few.

The resulting babble is not only incomprehensible but downright insulting to anyone whose beliefs they are co-opting that week. I think a lot of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus (to name just a few) would have trouble recognizing their own religions after these people have gotten through with them.

But it’s when you enter the field of politics that you meet the real pros. The spin doctors, the media relations people, the speech writers, and the politicians themselves. Never have so many people conspired to say so little with so many words. Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote about “fooling the people some of the time, but never all of the time” says nothing about making them not care about what you’re saying.

Nobody’s trying to fool anybody anymore because there is no point. Information is so readily available that the chance of hiding anything from anyone is next to impossible. The trick today is to make sure that either no one cares, or to be so incomprehensible and obviously contradictory that it just becomes too much work to argue.

These people learned the lesson that every high school student that didn’t study for an exam lived by: if you don’t know something, baffle them with bull shit so well that they don’t even have to think about it.

It’s an art form whose first real proponent was John Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s Press Secretary during the Watergate years, and it has evolved beyond anything he would recognize. He, at least, would have the decency to say on occasion that he had been “misinformed” about something when he was caught in a lie or contradicting himself from one week to another.

Today’s people seem to count on nobody being able to remember what they said last week, and are amazed when somebody has the audacity to bring it to their attention. I have actually heard someone say “That was then, this is now” as a justification for reversing themselves. As if a statement’s truth rests on circumstances not fact!

The really scary thing for me is how many of us seem willing to accept this conduct from everybody. Is it because they wear expensive suits, use big words and stand behind a podium with a symbol on it? Unlike the guys who run those human resource events and who could jeopardized your employment, the only reason the person up on that stage has power is because we gave it to them, either directly or indirectly. If we hadn’t voted for his or her boss, he wouldn’t be standing there blithering on about nothing.

I made a conscious choice not to hang out with new age types anymore because they were driving me so crazy. We can make a conscious choice not to accept that kind of behavior from anyone.

It’s easy. Just don’t vote for anyone who refuses to speak English that everybody can understand. Eventually they might get the picture. There are too many ways in which miscommunication already causes damage in this world. We don’t need it from our political leaders anymore than we’d want it from our husband or wife.

Edited: LH

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Here, here! (And one of the responsibilities of journalists is to pin down people in public life to answer questions, rather than respond with a lot of obfuscating waffle.

  • gypseyman writes: “…he’s not saying anything original?

    Reply: Actually, he’s not saying anything, original or not. It’s part of “corporate-speak.” You know, those legions of writers who get paid by the word? The teeming world where our golden rule, “eschew obfuscation” becomes “embrace obfuscation?”

    Originally born in the scientific community, particularly reporting in medical research journals, and later adopted by the legal profession, it is based on trying to sound intelligent without actually possessing that quality. If one uses enough long and dead, latin-esque words, anyone outside the “brotherhood” will not be able to understand what (if anything) you are saying.

    Trickle-down effect now has allowed the “talent” to be displayed, to good advantage in the corporate world, among others. Whereas, you, gypseyman, try to write in order to be understood, these dolts write for the simple purpose of sounding important. If they are obscure enough, there will be sufficient insecure clients, who think they are missing out on something important, for their exhorbitant fees. If you are really good, you can speak as you write.

    Then you can give seminars like the one you describe.



  • Duane

    Dietdoc says Originally born in the scientific community … it is based on trying to sound intelligent without actually possessing that quality.

    I am intrigued by this comment. I see from your website that you have published in medical journals. I have 136 publications in refereed astrophysics and physics journals and non-refereed conference proceedings. I have read … mmm … probably on the order of 3000 articles over the last 20 years. In my experience, physics articles are written with the goal of maximizing the conveyance of information, and minimizing obfuscation. Since only physicists read the work of other physicists, it is pointless to be anything less than crystal clear. An article is deemed valuable only if it is widely referenced in the years following its publication. This means that the article must not only contain results that are of interest to workers in the field, but also that it must be understood.

    Nevertheless, there are frequent occurrences of what you refer to as “trying to sound intelligent.” This manifests itself in the relatively harmless practice of using “big words” where a simpler word would do (for example, using the word “manifest”). Some simple examples of this: “utilize” instead of “use,” “ubiquitous” instead of “common,” etc. I have even seen the word “propinquity” used in the title of an article, and I believe it was nothing more than the author showing off their graduate school vocabulary.

    Now, this practice, infrequent though it may be, has been noted in editorial comments made in physics publications, and is frowned upon. As a community, we are encouraged to dispense with big words where possible. The assumption is that we are all capable of incorporating (there’s another example) 50-dollar words into our articles, but that we should be somewhat embarrassed when we give in to the temptation. It’s sort of a reverse snobbery. Often it is the younger scientists who exercise their prerogative to (omit last four words) pepper their articles with multi-syllabic words, eager to demonstrate their facility with the English language. Fortunately, this tendency gradually dissipates over time, simply for the sake of clarity.

    That being said, even the most concise physics article will make absolutely no sense to a non-physicist. That should not be surprising. I went to school for 13 years following high school to learn to understand that stuff. There is no attempt on the part of physicists to snow anybody, for the reasons given above. It is a very technical field. If anything, physicists would love to impart an understanding of their work to the public — witness Nova, Scientific American, Discover, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, NASA public outreach, etc. I don’t think you will see anything there but a sincere effort to inform.

    More to follow …

  • Duane

    Right. Now, when it come to dealing with the public, I think that’s when obfuscation truly rears its ugly head. That’s what I wanted to ask you about, dietdoc, since you work in a technical field and deal with the public. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but I have always thought that lawyers instinctively shroud their activities in obfuscating language. They also make themselves indispensable by dealing with unnecessarily big words, Latin, and clumsy sentence structure. “Mr. Attorney, what in the world does this mean here in Clause 8.3.2?” I would entertain the suggestion that lawyers and judges indulge in this murkiness for the sake of precision, but I would be skeptical. I think it’s more like a secret society, where sacred knowledge and rituals must be kept within the order of the initiated, in this case because, if we knew what they were really doing, we might say, “Oh, is that all? And you’re charging me $500 an hour for that?”

    My profession is quite technical, as well, but since members of the general public are not my customers, I can’t charge nearly that much per hour.

    So, dietdoc, does that start to describe the medical profession, as well? Do medical professionals intentionally obfuscate in order to make their profession more mysterious to the outsider?

  • I have to agree with Duane on the points mad in his comments. Language specfic to certain trades may seem incomprehensible to outsiders but is essential for them. How may of us really know what a Valve cock is?(hint: not a sex toy)But any machinist could tell you.

    A friend who is an associate prof. in philosophy and I had this discussion concerning the language of his texts, and his disertation. I voiced the usual ignorent comment of why don’t they write in english?
    He replied that there was a need for a specific language to communicate specific ideas, it was by it’s nature exclusive, but those who were interested in what was being expressed would get it. Those not wouldn’t be reading it.
    I was refering to those who you use language like a blunt instrument to deaden our sences. I have had the absolute horror of having to read through legal documents for various purposes and they seem only designed for confusing issues not clarifying them.
    As far as I am concerned lawyers have some of the same excuses as other professions, except that when dealing with the public very few of them provide translations. Ensuring themselves of a few extra billable hours.

    As my old buddy R.M Nixon used to say when preparing to lie through his teeth “let me make this perfectly clear”
    I was only refering to those people who supposedly deal with the public, but are incomprehensible, or never give a straight answer.