Easy Chair — From the April 2013 issue

Broken English

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The radio was tuned to NPR, the subject was austerity, and the great observers of our political moment were speaking with their customary authority. The conversation wandered to and fro, and then I heard David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, declare that when it came to cutbacks in federal spending, “history just argues incredibly strongly against it.”

I knew what Leonhardt meant: Austerity is a bad idea. And I agreed with him. Still, somehow his statement annoyed me. What grated, I soon realized, was his image of history “arguing” for or against something. There are, of course, lots of illustrious metaphors for the sweep of events: History is like a train, bearing us relentlessly down its tracks; history is like a nightmare from which we cannot awaken. Or you could make up your own: History is like a comfortable warm bath in received wisdom, or like a thousand-plane bombing raid on idealism.

One thing that history isn’t, however, is a pundit, arguing for this course of action or that. History doesn’t come chirping about its bright ideas; history doesn’t put on a solid midtone tie and appear on CNN; history doesn’t really give a damn what becomes of us.

But why should this bother me? Can it really matter which particular turns of phrase a journalist chooses, especially when he’s making off-the-cuff statements into a microphone at a radio station? I have myself said plenty of stupid things under those conditions. But as Leonhardt continued to work this vein, my irritation mounted. “It is possible to say,” he said, “that the argument for austerity now is one that is very weak when you look at the economic and historical evidence.”

What pundits say does matter. The words they use may seem deliberately chosen to express nothing, or to convey a simple thought in a roundabout way, but those words matter nonetheless. Such observers have worked hard learning to talk this way, and their relentless use of exhausted, empty metaphors has a precise meaning all its own.

In a famous essay published sixty-seven years ago, George Orwell declared that the clichés of the day were a product of contemporary politics. The only way people could absorb the awful events of World War II, he wrote, was to hear them camouflaged with nonsense. And so the English language was being ruined with passive constructions, threadbare similes, ways of saying things that burned up the syllables yet signified nothing.

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  • Peter Mork

    Well Tom, you gave away the game when you said “give away the game”.

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