Chris Pecora

Our Poor Language

This column is "Real Fruit."

By Fred Stenson

Those of us who with with language can’t watch documentaries about the evolution of English without tears welling—ah, the beauty! But I’m blubbering for different reasons these days.

A few decades back this would have been the preamble to an attack on the advertising industry or youth jargon. But neither are my enemy anymore. “Finger lickin’ good.” “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” “King of beers.” Any slogan that sticks in memory is probably clever. And, to the degree that advertising still has some of those chops, it represents a possible way for writers to make a living—like, a decent living. As for youth culture, rap brought a whole generation back to language as art. Amen.

For a long time now, the real language-damage has been done by politicians and managers. Even if you’re not in love with the English language but just enjoy communicating through it, these folks are doing their best to bring on the end times. That is, when language will be so tormented and bankrupt that we have to go back to making faces, piling rocks and grunting to be understood.

Regular readers of Alberta Views will know I waged righteous and repetitive war on the empty phrase “going forward.” I’m pleased to report “going forward” is officially in the declining crescent phase of its moon. I say this because only sports analysts use it now. Sports guys: quick to adopt, slow to drop. Now that they’re the last ones, I declare victory. Going forward is going backward.

But it’s like fighting fires in California. Lately, everywhere I turn, someone is claiming something is “nimble” or “robust.”  Really, people, how can a government’s approach to a disease be “nimble”? Shakespeare really liked the word nimble. “Being nimble, he hath outrun us.” That, applied to COVID, would be a good description of how the disease got so out of hand. COVID was nimble and the political machinery, especially the levers in the Orange Man’s hands, were clumsy. First-time-out-on-Grand-Theft-Auto clumsy; dancer-imitating-Nureyev-on-stilts clumsy.

As for “robust,” in a single news day: China’s economy is robust; PAL automation is robust; Skagit’s county ballot returns are robust; a feasibility study is robust; demand for nickel is robust; contact tracing is robust. I made a robust breakfast out of robust oats. Ironically, my coffee was the only thing that failed to be robust.

For the record, the only instance of “robust” in Shakespeare seems to be a serious caution against being robust: “Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags.…”

I agree with Shakespeare completely. Robustiousness should not be overdone, especially in language, where claiming something is robust that has no relationship to the word signals that you are full of the old crapola.

In the end times language will be so tormented and bankrupt that we have to go back to making faces, piling rocks and grunting to be understood.

Food-related words are readily colonized by politics and management. The handing out of goodies to the masses is “pork-barrelling.” This came from the historical use of a barrel of salted pork to feed slaves as a treat. Rubber chicken circuit: based on overcooked chicken at large gatherings where politicians wax on. “Buttering people up” isn’t restricted to politics or management but certainly is prominent in both.

Part of the popularity of culinary terms in political/management circles is their built-in duplicity. Overdone meat is said to be “hearty.” Burned meat becomes “blackened” and gains cachet. Tough food is “a bit chewy.” Mushy = tender.

In a stab at preemptivity, I’ve guessed what current food usages are “ripest” for shifting into the political/management sphere. I think throne speeches with carefully mixed good and bad news might be described as “sweet and sour.” The word organic is already hopelessly done for. Anything not from outer space or Earth’s molten core is now organic.

What I’ll do is make an offering. I’m going to suggest two new word combos for use by managers or politicians—but they’re not a gift. It’s a trade. If they’ll stop abusing “nimble” and “robust,” they can have these two new ones, both dandies.

The first is “pre-biotic.” It means a carbohydrate that passes through the human intestine undigested. It’s perfect for the manager who wishes to advocate a practice that makes noise, seems to mean something, but which, at day’s end, achieves or even affects nothing. “With this pre-biotic program, we will not impose upon the lives of voters.”

My second is “real fruit.” This might be the best of all jargons for politicians and managers. I can hear it: “Ours is the ideal elder care option. It is real fruit.” “This is not some Liberal hoax, folks. Our economic plan is real fruit.” Do you see how ideal this is? How it appears to mean something but means absolutely nothing? Fruit is fruit—even the Monsanto-poisoned stuff.

There’s my offering, managers and politicians of Canada. Quit with nimble and robust, and pre-biotic and real fruit are yours to abuse for years.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.




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