Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and, er, Redundancies

Recently I discussed how copy editors sometimes cultivate irritation excessively, assiduously accumulating pet peeves to arm themselves as language guardians. Now I'm feeling irritated--at a language guardian. The indispensable copy-editing blog A Capital Idea pointed me to an article by Shawn Moynihan in Editor & Publisher, a prescriptivist rant (really and truly) against the phrase "It is what it is." White House press secretary Scott McClellan used the phrase in response to reporters' questions about the government's domestic surveillance, and that has Moynihan in a froth. He calls it "one of the most deflective, idiotic phrases ever to creep into the vernacular" and says that McClellan's use of it means "it is time to draw the line." (Hmmm, that sounds like a tattoo idea: ITTDTL.)

It's one thing to circumvent the truth. It's another thing to lie. But to deflect questions about a topic as crucial as the Bush administration's admitted use of domestic spying by invoking [see note 1 below] one of the most say-nothing, let's-change-the-subject phrases [SNLCTSP--see note 2 below] ever to creep into the English language, is something else entirely.

Apparently the White House can lie as much as it likes, but as soon as it misuses language, it's time to draw the line. Scott McClellan must be wishing he'd picked the straightforwardly evasive "No comment." (Or not: How exactly is a staffer at Editor & Publisher going to draw the line? Forbid newspapers from quoting anyone who uses the phrase?)

The phrase "It is what it is," writes Moynihan, is "about as offensive as it gets to those of us who still care about words and their meaning." He's a proud member of an embattled and dwindling clan of word lovers, and here he presents his membership credentials and philosophy:

Full disclosure here -- as managing editor of E&P, I read a lot of copy. Language in all its forms fascinates me. Communication, be it lingual, physical, musical or otherwise, in the end is really all we have. When used effectively, it is, quite simply, the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal. And when it's misused, for someone who considers word use of great importance, it's deeply offending.

Putting aside the strange "weapon" metaphor (is that really why we value language? And isn't Moynihan accusing McClellan of using language as a weapon?), what's most important here is that a word lover is offended. (And make no mistake--he's really beside himself: He later calls the phrase "absolutely galling.")

In the next paragraph Moynihan addresses the laity:

The phrase "It is what it is," for the uninitiated, is one of the most deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic phrases in the English language. And not surprisingly -- mostly because it's at times useful for ending an argument without having to justify your point -- it's beginning to penetrate the vernacular. And certainly, the White House.

The uninitiated (see note 3 below) had better take his word here, because he doesn't explain why the phrase is "deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic." He must have sensed the futility, since the uninitiated most likely don't read the "Shoptalk" column in Editor & Publisher.

Here's what I'd like to know: If McClellan's linguistic legerdemain is powerful enough to fool the public (or "pull a fast one on the masses," as Moynihan says), how is it so easy for Moynihan to see through it?

Even more puzzling: How can someone believe that crimes against language are worse than lies? It doesn't make much sense until you realize that many prescriptivists see language as the foundation of all morality. If you believe that, then maybe a string of good honest fibs is nothing compared to a single misuse of language. That would be an attack on the moral fiber of society, and that's where you have to draw the line.


1. Moynihan's concern about word usage has its limits. I can't find any definition in M-W's Collegiate that corresponds to this usage of "invoking." With an extreme stretch, you might say he means "to put into effect or operation: IMPLEMENT." He was probably going for something with the connotation of "to call forth by incantation : CONJURE." But you can't call forth an incantation by uttering the same incantation. Maybe he should have just said "incanting" or "uttering" instead of "invoking."

2. Whenever someone invokes, er, says something is "one of the most X things ever," it makes me wonder what the other, similarly X things are. Since Moynihan doesn't provide a list, here are some possible candidates. The ur-SNLCTSP has got to be "Whatever." Just ask Russell Crowe, who was provoked by "Whatever" to draw the line with a hotel telephone. Another is the old Budweiser line "Why ask why?" which hasn't managed to creep as far into the English language as "Whatever." One that never quite crept into the English language at all is "Que sera, sera." Actually, it's surprising we haven't heard that one in a press conference yet--it has a Rumsfeldian ring. If we draw the line now, maybe we can keep it from creeping in.

3. Actually, it's not clear from the syntax whether (1) he's addressing the uninitiated or (2) he's saying that only the uninitiated consider the phrase "meaningless." I'll assume he's addressing them. (But then wouldn't "for the initiated" be a dangling modifier?)


At 4:51 PM, Blogger Bill said...


Meaninglessness is sort of the point of the expression, isn't it? It's another way of saying "Nothing more needs to be said."

It's a cliche, sure, but aside from that, it is what it ...

At 5:50 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

That about sums it up, I think.

Though it occurs to me that Leslie Savan's new book, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever, might have something to add. I haven't decided whether to read it yet.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Lunar Brogue said...

Two points: (1) Is it the case that spin merchants corrupt and cheapen our language by encouraging high profile spokespeople such as McClellan to avoid (mask, obscure, recast) contentious issues by deploying meaningless platitudes and cliches? (leaving the listener or reader with a blank face, dull brain and an implacable desire to go and see if there's anything interesting in the fridge) (2) If Moynihan believes that language is "the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal" then perhaps it's misuse is less forgivable than lying. (Who would argue that a couple of porkys about WMD was worse than a barrage of poorly targeted smart bombs in Baghdad, metaphorically speaking?)

At 5:26 AM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

1. Your statement sounds about right except for the "corrupt and cheapen our language" part. The English language would seem pretty limited if you couldn't use it to mask, obscure, and recast things.

2. Yes, that seems to be exactly what he's saying.


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