Can we have an adult conversation about catch phrases in our political discourse? At least two are hiding in the first sentence alone. How many more can you find in this article? Some are hiding in plain sight.
The following memes have been nominated to receive the coveted “Catchie” Award honoring the most popular catch phrase of the year in the U.S. news media. Popular linguistic tics in recent years have included “gone missing,” “place at the table,” and “end of the day.” Such phrases bring a tone of seriousness or even solemnity to whatever is being discussed. But do they really bring anything new to the conversation?
Full disclosure: I have overused some of these terms myself, as have many of my favorite commentators and writers.
As a political junkie, I perk up when I hear that someone has been “thrown under the bus.” Bus-throwing , implying ungrateful betrayal of a friend or supporter, is usually invoked to dramatize a presumed grave offense, though more often it serves merely to magnify some personal or political slight for polemical purposes. Rarely does anyone die under the crushing weight of a metaphor.
Another favorite of mine is “kicked to the curb,” a milder alternative to “under the bus.” Curb-kicking, like bus-throwing, is meant to be understood figuratively, unless you happen to be the wrong sort of person at a Rand Paul rally. And as long as we are kicking things, let’s postpone an important decision by “kicking it down the road.”
What does our political and economic future hold in store? Much remains to be seen going forward. Can we just tweak the recovering economy, or will we have to jump-start it again? Will a double-dip recession drive it back into a ditch or over a cliff? Will there be more correspondents and boots on the ground abroad by year’s end? Will we see a continuing disconnect between values voters and those who presumably have no values? What are the optics, not to mention the up-ticks, among presidential hopefuls as they position themselves in the run-up to 2012? And will their playing field be level? Time will tell.
Certain expressions have migrated from my own academic world to the wider world of mass media. One such term is “discourse,” sometimes appearing as a verb. We no longer converse or discuss. Now we engage in public discourse. Discourse is a perfectly legitimate term, popular in academic circles at least since Foucault, but by now it is a bit tired from overwork.
“Narrative” is another such term. Thus President Obama is said to have lacked a compelling narrative to convey to a broad public the accomplishments of his administration’s first term. Narratives are said to “frame” discourses. Thinking about public discussions in this way can yield sophisticated insights, no doubt. Indeed, an entire liberal arts education in miniature is contained within it. But like “freedom and liberty” it can ring hollow when rung too often or too unthinkingly.
And now the moment we’ve been waiting for. It is time to announce the winners of the Catch Phrase of the Year Awards (the coveted “Catchies”). Here is a mash-up of nominated wordclips. The re-family (reboot, reinvent, reimagine, revisit, remix, repurpose, reset, regift) made a good showing again last year, as did “game changer,” “pushback,” “hair on fire,” “man up” (where’s “woman up”?), and relative newcomers “dog whistle” and the hot British import “one-off."
First runner-up for the year’s most overused expression is -- wait for it -- “iconic.” What well-known product’s or person’s “brand,” as we now say, hasn’t lately been described as iconic? Iconic is the new famous.
And the winner is: “viral.” Just as “buzzword” was once a fresh buzzword, before it jumped the shark, “viral” has gone viral. Now if we can just find a way to monetize it.
Repeated mechanically and without reflection, our idioms can make us idiots. They can degrade the quality of public discourse and infect our narratives with semantic viruses. So let’s kick them to the curb going forward. Better yet, let’s throw them under the bus. We’ll all be better off at the end of the day.
Please take a moment to send this news to everyone in your social network. Content is provided by Daniel Rigney, author of The Matthew Effect (Columbia, 2010).