Maybe you’ve come across a game called bullshit bingo. It uses standard bingo rules but instead of numbers on your card you have to cross off any bullshit words or phrases that you hear at your lecture or meeting. Mindless crap like “out of the box” or “proactive” or “keep it real”. As in normal bingo, the winner is the first one to mark off everything on their card. There must be many a speaker who’s been bewildered to see one of the audience jump up and punch the air for no apparent reason.
You can get cards here. I imagine that when these terms were first used they seemed creative and meaningful. There’s nothing wrong with them in themselves. It’s just the lazy, thoughtless way they get dribbled out, mindlessly, ad nauseam.
I don’t know enough about other languages to make my view entirely scientific, but I know that as a native English speaker I’m blessed with a unique inheritance. Our language is a wonder of human achievement. And it just goes on getting richer, fed by the global community, by so many cultures, in so many different contexts.
For every word or phrase available to a French-speaking person we will probably have three or four ways of expressing the same idea in English. This isn’t just because our island has had successive invasions of language going back for thousands of years. It’s because we’ve embraced those influxes. Then we’ve exported them to the rest of the world and welcomed back all the linguistic creativity that those other cultures have to offer. Never more so than with the US, that mighty powerhouse of innovation. The results haven’t always been pretty. But by heaven they’ve been refreshing and fun. If you want elegance and discipline, better move to France. Over there, they are masters at keeping a language regimented and dull. They even have the Académie Française, a publicly-financed bunch of old farts who’ve been hard at work since 1635, stemming the tide of foreign influence and keeping the French language petrified and pure, formal and fossilised. More about it here if you’re interested.
If languages were cars, native English speakers would be born with a Jaguar on the drive, while elsewhere they’d have Fiats and Skodas. But however good the car is, it still needs driving.
Most people, me included, spend a lot of our time doing the bare minimum with our language. That’s like having a Jag but never getting out of first gear. Boring, but it’s usually enough to get by. That’s our choice, it’s our language to do with what we will. Dickens would be turning in his grave. So what. I can drive my Jag around in first gear and anyone who doesn’t like it can go hang. But HERE’S THE THING: nobody is paying me to drive it.
Try this interesting challenge: find a sports article about Barcelona FC that doesn’t use the phrase “Catalan giants”. At one time this would have been marvelously evocative, conceived by some genuinely creative writer. Now it’s reduced by over-exposure to nothing more than standard, second-rate, journalistic bilge.
Or here’s another near-impossible quest: to listen to a full football match commentary and not hear about the lack of “a bit of quality in the final third”. The presence or absence of this mysterious component will supposedly decide the outcome of every game. Not just voice commentary either – click on this Google search to see which erudite big-names are currently on the case.
Having a normal heart attack might be fatal but it doesn’t seem to be serious enough to make the news these days. You have to have a massive heart attack. Whatever that means. Must be specialist medical terminology they’re using.
And so on. A person isn’t just private, they’re intensely private. People don’t ever die of cancer. Nor, for that matter, do they succumb to, perish from, or fall victim to it either. They only ever lose their battle against it. That, by the way, must rankle with many who’ve watched their loved ones bear the burden of illness lightly and end their days in dignity, with head held high and spirits unbowed.
There’s nothing wrong with emphasis, a bit of hyperbole or embellishment. But please, not the same lazy, tired old phrases trotted out again and again. Paid for by the word. Paid for by us. And let’s just remind ourselves what we are paying these people for. It’s not for their good looks. If I employ a chauffeur I expect them to have the skill and experience to use that Jag to its full capabilities. Not drive it around in first gear. I can do that for myself.
There are some great exceptions out there, like Barney Ronay or Ray Hudson who stand out from the timid, idle majority. Have a look at their stuff. They’re not afraid to go up through the gears and take a few risky corners. And they’ve got the skill and confidence to come through them unscathed. For the mediocre rest, well, language is supposed to be the one, essential tool of their trade. We pay them for their expertise in the same way that we pay lawyers for their legal skills. But we’re not getting our money’s worth. They’re short-changing us. Lacking, as we might say, a bit of quality.