The View from Mudsock Heights: It’s a Tortured Path from Figure of Speech to Cliché

By Dennis Dennis | Posted at 14:19

The hot new word of 2011 is “bespoke.” If you listen, you’ll suddenly hear it everywhere. It used to be a perfectly good word, but by midsummer it will be threadbare and tattered from overuse. The wear is already showing.

Alas, it is possible to take just about any phrase or word and strip it of its usefulness by overusing it where a different word or phrase would be better. “Bespoke” is the latest victim, but its predecessors are many.

For instance, I sometimes think that long after people have stopped reading the works of the brilliant reporter and writer Tom Wolfe, they’ll remember him as the originator of a long stream of clichés. Many of them began their literary life in his book, The Right Stuff, which made everybody want to pretend to be a test pilot without going through the trouble of learning how to fly or, probably, dying a horrible death.

Indeed, the title of the book itself turned into a cliché. A couple of decades ago I wrote a lot about aviation and the space program. One of my editors, a fine fellow in most other respects, could not stop himself from figuring out a way to fit “the right stuff” into every one of my stories in which airplanes or astronauts got mentioned. It made me shudder. I suspect it made readers shudder. I did not actually scream until, in what he no doubt thought was an act of great cleverness, he managed to wedge in “the wrong stuff” to describe a pilot who threw up after he landed a plane that nearly came apart in flight.

He (the editor, not the pilot, who is currently dead) has, of course, advanced handsomely in the publishing business.

The abuse of the things Tom Wolfe revealed to us extends far beyond the title of that book. He told us of the engineering term used to describe the set of conditions under which an airplane could be expected to remain in the sky, under control and in one piece. Test pilots were expected to extend these conditions, to find their extremes. This was called “pushing the envelope.” The really brave ones sometimes flew “outside the envelope.” Have you heard the phrase recently? Did its use have anything to do with aviation?

(Of course, the peddlers of motivational snake oil got hold of the envelope and decided to turn it into a parcel, and soon we had “outside the box,” a term that suggests the pinnacle of achievement is attained by zombies.)

A pilot who ended up part of a smoking heap of wreckage, who lacked the Zen-like sense of how far to go but no farther, was said to have “screwed the pooch.” Now it’s used so often, never in its original context, that you might think it’s part of a campaign to legitimize bestiality.

One of the sad aspects of clichéd language is that the person speaking more often than not has no idea what the uttered phrase means or where it came from. It is then an affectation.

The rise of computers has given us many precise terms that got loose — outside the box? — and have become self-parodying; many of them were not far from that destination when they were limited to computer science. We don’t turn computers off when they malfunction, then turn them on again to see if that fixes the problem. No, we “reboot,” a term that is silly enough in that context but unbearable when pop psychologists encourage us to “reboot” our lives.

We no longer do several things at once; now we “multitask,” a term coined 25 years ago in an effort to sell an operating system which would allow many unstable programs at once to be loaded into memory, so that any one of them could malfunction and let the operator knowingly claim the computer had “crashed.”

I have a friend who is fond of using jargon in an effort to persuade people he is knowledgeable. He no longer reads things; he — really — “downloads” them. He refers to his brain as his “hard drive.” He is not an idiot, but he sounds like one.

It should not surprise you to learn that my friend the non-idiot works in television news and therefore may be forgiven his offenses against the language. He at least knows the meaning of the word “quash,” which might make him unique in his industry.

“Quash” is a very precise legal term. Television newsfolk, whose knowledge is generally limited to hairstyling and looking concerned in the fashion of a beauty pageant contestant speaking of “world hunger,” decided that “quash” is a typographical error. This is why you often hear on television of lawyers who are expected to go to court in an effort to “squash” a subpoena. Perhaps they are doing this with one of the “boots on the ground,” the use of which transforms television commentators into military experts.

(Heaven alone can save “forces.” Once, it meant an army, but then broadcasters started saying that the U.S. was sending, say, “3,000 forces” to some destination. How many soldiers are there in a “force”? Or is it just one, maybe with a pry bar?)

“Bespoke,” by the way, means made for a specific purpose and unsuitable for other use. Which, now that I think of it, perfectly describes the words and phrases in quotation marks above.

They are, yes, bespoke.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.



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