Orwell advises us not to use figures of speech we’re accustomed to seeing in print. This post is not so much about overly familiar political figures of speech as it about words and phrases so pulverized by insincere, automatic over-use that they are full of sound and fury signifying nothing–speaking of a familiar phrase. Here is a list of 10, not ranked, of words and phrases I wish politicians would stop using. Or, if they do use them, I wish that someone nearby would sound a clown-horn immediately, or sneeze loudly. Not censorship, per se, just a bit of feedback from the audience.
Some of these might qualify as “buzz-words,” a term, by the way, that when originally used seems to have been more positive; look at the earliest entry from the OED online:
1946 Amer. Speech XXI. 263/1 Students at the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University use a specialized vocabulary known as ‘buzz words’ to describe the key to any particular course or situation.
Anyway, the list, briefly annotated:
1. “The American people . . .” –usually followed by “want” or “don’t want” or “reject” or “need. The American people don’t agree on anything, so the phrase in this context is useless from the get-go, and how can one person, even a vaunted senator, know what “the American people” think, want, reject, need, etc., even if “the American people” thought as one, like the Borg?
2. “The middle class . . .” A fine term in some contexts, but when politicians use it, they’re almost always being imprecise, and I almost always get the sense that they’re using it to cover a much too broad socioeconomic category, that they’re avoiding the use of “working class,” and that they’re trying to associate themselves with the middle class.
3. “Freedom.” Politicians shouldn’t use this word unless they’re referring to a specific situation. Example: “We think the person trapped in the embassy should be allowed his freedom.” But bloviations like “we’re helping to spread freedom around the world”? No. Or “The American people value freedom”? Well, everyone values freedom, as opposed to incarceration, for example
4. “Hard work/working hard.” When congresspersons tell us how hard they’re working, I a) wonder if they’re lying again or b) want to respond, “I should hope so.” When they speak of “the American value of hard work,” I frequently want to respond, “you know, for most people, hard work is a necessity, not a lofty value. It’s done for money, which buys food and shelter.”
5. “National security.” An almost infinitely vast umbrella that can cover any number of actions or inactions, that can cover up much mischief, and that can bury information people deserve to know.
6. “Our children’s future.” Admit it, Mr. or Ms. Politician: You’re concerned about your immediate future.
7. “American values.” Too vague. Also, some things Americans value may not be so good; who knows? We’re not perfect. Also, some very good values may be ones people around the globe share with us, so they’re not American.
8. “This campaign is about . . .” This campaign is about getting you elected, not about freedom, the American people, national security, the middle class, or American values.
9. “War on terror . . .” I’m with Vidal on this one: you can’t fight a war against a noun. We attack and are attacked by terrorists, usually ones representing specific groups. Be specific.
10. “Our brave men and women in uniform.” I’m of two minds about this one. Yes, people in uniform are brave, either because they have to be, or because of temperament, or both. They get sent to dangerous violent places, and too often they get sent there on little more than a whim. At the same time, politicians use the phrase too often and too glibly, and they use it to shed warm light on themselves. To be used with caution, in my opinion.