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Now for the name-calling

A reader of these dispatches posts a strong response to another reader’s comment about impactful and other vogue words that they can amount to “gibberish.”

Here’s the whole thing:

And here’s the comment in question:

If one wants to argue for the benefits of standardized language and lexicon, arguing that the alternative is linguistic chaos is counter-productive. Thousands -- tens of thousands -- of languages have worked perfectly fine without the need for, for example, a written language and certainly for a dictionary. Using "impactful" is not gibberish; it's an alternative that for various reasons, entirely social and zero percent linguistic, is considered substandard in some circles (only). To argue that it's in some way unclear or not useful, or to pronounce that a term is the ever-popular and overworn "not a word," is to do nothing more than show that one fundamentally does not understand how one's own native language is used (or even works, either grammatically or evolutionarily). Moreover it reveals a deep streak of snobbishness that suggests that the speaker believes that anyone not up to the speaker's idiosyncratic and markedly non-democratic standards is an incapable user of the language, and communicates in "gibberish." (Why not just go ahead and call it "grunts," then?)

One of the things I’ve struggled to accomplish in these operations is to keep a distance from dogmatic grammar snobs while maintaining that useful and important judgments can be made about language and usage I don’t intend to stoop to the canard that to linguists anything said by a native speaker is legitimate — a dressed-up version of the undergraduate’s “What does it matter how I say it if I get my point across?”  But I think that Mr. Zicari’s comment about “gibberish” is a little more solid than rhetorical excess.

Take this example, forwarded to me by a colleague. It’s a statement by the president of MediaSpan Software, explaining the company’s change of name: “The name change coincides with internal synergies we are leveraging across the entire MediaSpan organization to expand our product offerings.”

This is not quite gibberish — I suspect that it means that the company will try to get more work out of fewer people — but it doesn’t make it easy to ferret out a meaning. The fondness of cant terms such as synergy and leverage can serve the purpose of concealing meaning or, equally well, concealing a lack of meaning.

The year I abandoned my uncompleted doctorate in English, I came across a dissertation abstract that said — the author’s own summary, mind you — that Jonathan Swift thought true love to be superior to false love. The thought of having to read several thousand words leading up to this remarkable conclusion was a serious deterrent to the academic life. This was also about the time that the nimble thoughts of Messrs. Barthes, Derrida and Foucault swept over the American academy, leading to the production by less gifted practitioners of a prose stodge defying comprehension. Some might call it gibberish. Some have.

But that is all right. As an amateur rhetorician, I am most concerned with the way that speech and writing are directed at an audience. Since the bulk of academic writing is aimed not at increasing the store of knowledge but at achieving tenure and promotion, it is just as well that it goes largely unread by other academics not on the tenure committee. Similarly, bombast that people in business lather on one another tends not to disturb me, since the market will determine their fates anyhow. Live and let live, I say.

As an editor of journalism, my concern is that we provide the long-suffering public information in the dialect called standard written English, with whatever economy and precision in the use of words we can achieve. That includes scraping away the superstitions and shibboleths that have attached themselves to the craft (which the linguists have been helpful in pointing out) as well as looking suspiciously at examples of cant and fad that are trying to attach themselves. In that enterprise, we find that some words are better than others.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:06 PM | | Comments (3)


It is funny how a school of thought that holds that "literally" can most definitely mean "figuratively" is that's the speaker's intention has such a hard time wrapping its collective mind around the idea that "wrong" can mean ... what John said.

Somewhere between the notion that every documented usage is standard and the notion that the language cannot be allowed to evolve at all dwells the proper philosophy for copy editors to embrace.

True, but sometimes it's the gibberish that *makes* the news. On Friday, I drafted a press release and was instructed to insert into it the new buzzword "crowdsourcing." Why? Because, even though it's just a new name for an old concept, "it's very popular right now, and will appeal to the media." How true: by Tuesday our state's major newspaper had chosen to write a feature on the topic (and what we're doing about it). The photo shoot was today; the article runs next Tuesday. And "crowdsourcing" -- which admittedly may not constitute true gibberish, but is definitely Fad English -- will be on all the tech-section's readers' lips... though perhaps only until the next fad.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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