If there are any words floating around that you dislike or despise, or that merely get on your nerves, don’t send them along to me. I am likely to attack them in print, after which, if previous experience be any guide, they will flourish, proliferate and become more irritating than either of us imagined possible. Such has been the fate of previous sorties of mine against the misuse of the word “issue,” the imprecise use and overuse of the word “focus”—about “laser-focus” let us not speak—and the politically slanted use of “the American people” usually joined to the phrase “need to know.”
No sooner does one become resigned to defeat in the effort to clean up the language than—pow!—up pops another dopey word that has no genuine claim to existence. The latest entry in this crowded field is “real time.” The words came blazing to the forefront when President Trump shot off a tweet about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in the midst of her testimony before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month. Bad enough that Mr. Trump had denigrated Ambassador Yovanovitch’s service to her country, but he did it, wouldn’t you know, in “real time,” or while she was testifying. He did it in real time, you understand, as opposed to false time, pluperfect time, or perhaps daylight-saving time. Real time, used in the way it was this month, is a poor example of an emphasizer—in the case of the Trump tweet, it is meant to intensify the awfulness of his having sent the tweet at all.
The greatest offenders in the field of language misuse are of course our elected politicians. A stellar example is the Democratic Party’s recent abandonment of the Latin quid pro quo, meaning “this for that” or “something for something.” This lexical leave-taking was decided, apparently, on the advice of a focus group. To describe the exchange of a public announcement of a Ukrainian investigation into the Biden family for the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid (read: rifles, radars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers), the phrase “quid pro quo” was apt. But the three Latin words were considered too obscure, and, even for those who understood them, it didn’t make the president’s behavior seem sufficiently heinous. So quid pro quo was turned in for “bribery,” which felt more lubricious, sleazy, fittingly low.
But not low enough evidently, for within 48 hours “bribery” was supplanted by “extortion,” which implies a threat of violence against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. How long “extortion” will last is anybody’s guess. Perhaps a new focus group could come up with a word or phrase that suggests what President Trump had done was even worse than extortion. “Naked betrayal of American interests” might work, with its hint of courtesans forming tableau vivant in the background while Russian President Vladimir Putin, seated stage left, plays cello, shirtless, a wide grin across his face.
Inflated or otherwise imprecise language is useful for false stories. Oops, I wrote “stories” but of course I meant—another nonsense word—“narratives.” The historian Wilfred McClay has written that new use of the word narrative “provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be ‘constructed,’ and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity—acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.”
Composing narratives, like ping-pong, is a competitive game. In the current impeachment proceedings against President Trump there are at least four such narratives. The first is the president’s, which holds he never approached Mr. Zelensky with a quid pro quo arrangement, and that his call of July 25 was, in his wording, “perfect.” The second is the Democrats’ counternarrative, which claims Mr. Trump approached Mr. Zelensky to get the goods on his potential political rival Joe Biden, and in doing so he clearly broke the law and thereby disgraced his office. The Republicans retorted with a third narrative, which is that even if the president did offer a quid pro quo to Mr. Zelensky, it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense. To which the Democrats replied with a fourth narrative that what Mr. Trump did is equivalent to ripping up the Constitution and placing our very democracy in direst danger.
Narratives, narratives, narratives, as far as the eye can see, and truth, as so often in contemporary issues, remains nicely hidden. And all this, need I add, brought off in real time.
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”
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