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Age of Babble-On


I have always made my living using words. My profession encourages correct usage because the primary goal of journalism is to convey information in a way that is comprehensible to the reader. But I have a secret confession: nothing amuses me more than a delicious lexical faux pas.

For me, the occasional apropos typo or misplaced clause can be funnier than any planned witticism. I have committed a number of these errors during my career and, even when I was the culprit, I still found them hilarious. For a while, we even posted our gaffes on the newsroom bulletin board to lighten the mood and to remind ourselves of our human fallabilty. 

Although it was made more than 40 years ago—and is not one of my own—this one lingers in my memory as one of the best of all time. My editor, subbing as a sportswriter, was recounting the last game of a miserable season for the Sharon baseball team. Seeking to put as good a light on a losing season as he could, he wrote, “The scrappy little Sharon team went down to defeat …” 

At least that is what he thought he wrote.

Thursday morning, soon after the paper came out, the coach stood over his desk. “We had a bad season, but you didn’t have to say that!” he protested. My editor looked aghast at the paper where it clearly stated, “The crappy little Sharon team went down to defeat.”

My editor protested that he hadn’t written that, and that the “s” must have been dropped by the typesetter (yes, we had those back then). Out to the composing room they went, where the original copy was retrieved. Lo and behold, there was no “s.” “I thought you were being awfully frank,” the typesetter said laconically.

Such things are accidents, but the pomposity of modern usages is often just as amusing. I laughed out loud the other evening when a news program aired a segment on private ventures into space travel. In a film clip of a missile exploding upon take-off, you could hear a woman in the control room announcing, “We’ve had a rapid unplanned disassembly.” Oh, for heaven’s sake! What wrong with saying, “It blew up.”

Why has Speedo suddenly decided that its swim caps are “hair management systems”? How did water become transformed into an “affordable portable lifestyle beverage”? Why is “granular” replacing “detailed” and why have meetings become “summits.”

Here’s one I loathe: “Optics,” not in its original meaning of “the scientific study of sight and the behavior of light,” but now magically transformed to mean the way in which an event or course of action is perceived by the public. What’s wrong with the old, tried-and-true “appearance.”

Why are celebrities now said to have “opened up” about things that are not secrets? And what in heaven’s name, is an “alternative truth.” If it’s truth your seeking, perhaps the fastest way to get it is through “enhanced interrogation,” an old Nazi term for torture later embraced by Americans during the Iraq war.

Information would seem to be a good thing, wouldn’t it? How else can we assess an issue and draw a correct conclusion? But even information has some bad cousins these days. Disinformation is information that is deliberately false, formerly known as a lie; misinformation is false, but the person disseminating it believes to be true, and malinformation (what ungraceful constructions these are!) is based in reality but used to inflict harm on others. All these unsavory relatives of the noble “information” can easily be used to convey the aforesaid “alternative truths.”

“Oh, what wicked webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” 

And that is what is happening in our cultural universe. We are recreating a metaphorical Tower of Babylon, where our inability to understand each other is wrecking havoc on our world. Words are being used to obfuscate, to conceal and to distort the truth. Or to feed us intellectual pap designed to dodge issues altogether and lull us into a sense of complacency. 

When we permit our language to be tampered with and distorted, we are inviting it to cloak and disguise. Perhaps the unintentionally dropped “s” in that long-ago sports story better revealed the truth about a season that had seen no wins than would have the kinder, more generous word, “scrappy.”

Kathryn Boughton is Editor of the Kent Good Times Dispatch. The views expressed in “Out on a Limb” are hers and do not represent Kent News, Inc.

Kathryn Boughton
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    March 9, 2024 at 2:43 pm

    My most hated misuse of a word is “closure”. It is a business term. Has nothing to do with human experience.

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