, Newburyport, MA

May 13, 2013

Confusions and cliches

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — Sometimes things arrive on my desk or in my computer that don’t fit into any organized pattern, but that are too good not to share with people who like words and their use and misuse.

Where do you suppose the headline writers’ heads were when they wrote these actual headlines (which appeared on the Internet under the heading, “Why I still buy newspapers”)? “Bugs flying around with wings are flying bugs.” “Illiteracy an obstable, study finds.” “Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.” “Miracle cure kills fifth patient.” “Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons.” “Homicide victims rarely talk to police.” “17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree.” “Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee.”

Mistakes like these never fail to entertain. Like some more? “City unsure why sewer smells.” “Study shows frequent sex enhances pregnancy chances.” “Barbershop singers bring joy to school for deaf.” “Man with 8 DUIs blames drinking problem.” “Diana was still alive hours before she died.” “Rally against apathy draws small crowd.”

I recently reported on the man who was “sentenced to 6 months in the Lawrence Superior Court,” and just the other day saw “Tsunami warning issued after Alaska quake cancelled.” Canceling quakes is a level of seismological intervention I did not know had been reached.

I suppose every profession or social group has its argot, its convenient clichés. Real estate salespeople probably don’t have the time or inclination for literary ventures, so, understandably, they tend to use or misuse the same words over and over. They will continue (despite this column) to use them because of the feelings or images they evoke.

A common and to me annoying cliché is use of the word “home” instead of “house.” I am on the (obviously correct) side that asserts that what is bought and sold is a “house” — bricks, mortar, siding and shingles. A “home” usually involves a house, but it is far more — typically a host of tangible and intangible emotional connections. One could buy a “home,” I suppose, with Mother and Susie in the kitchen baking, Dad having a drink in the den, and Grandma knitting on the porch with a cat in her lap. But it would be somebody else’s home, not yours. The “homely” adage is, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ to make a house a home.”

In the advertisements, you find that the “homes” offered are sure to be your “dream home,” and that a lot of land is where you can build this dream home. If a Realtor wanted to pull out all the stops, his or her advertisement for 150 Cloudland Drive would sound something like this: “This charming dream home, nestled on a spacious sun-drenched half-acre lot, boasts a stately entrance which is complimented [sic.] by a gracious foyer. A spectacular granite kitchen, ceiling fans, and stunning seasonal views of the landfill round out this light-filled beautifully maintained once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Wow! A must-see.” (Qualified sales personnel wishing to use this fulsome rhetoric are welcome to do so upon the payment of a small fee — sorry, “honorarium.”)

“Realtor,” by the way, is a made word, coined in 1916 to distinguish honest members of the Minneapolis Real Estate Board from the fly-by-night “rascals” who had been giving the profession a bad name.

“Mortician” was similarly invented in 1895 as a more-genteel replacement for undertaker. Morticians to avoid saying “die” will employ the gentler phrase “passed on,” “passed away” or just “passed” — or among themselves they are known to say that the deceased “has reached room temperature.”

I don’t mean to be too hard on the dwelling sellers — jargon is a part of all kinds of occupations. The used-car seller has his “cream puffs.” Truckers (it is said) have their “cupcakes,” meaning any waitress in a truck stop; and the surfers their “ho-daddies” — people who have all the surfing kit but never quite seem to get in the water. (Actually, I am rather tickled by “ho-daddy,” and suggest an expansion of the expression to cover a lot of people who do not walk their talk.)

As for journalist jargon, (mostly clichés), one tires of repeatedly hearing “in harm’s way,” “that said … ,” and “iconic,” nonce words or phrases that one hopes will be supplanted in due course. What about the highly manipulative sales pitch, “Get the lugzury you deserve?” I don’t want luxury, and I don’t want to pay for it, and how can the advertiser know whether I deserve it or not? The more critically one listens, the less likely one is to be manipulated.


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