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Posts Tagged ‘language’

04 AUGUST, 2014

The Best-Kept Secret of Clichés: How to Upgrade Our Uses and Abolish Our Abuses of Language

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A manifesto against mindless language, or how to get off autopilot in the art of communication.

“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980, lamenting the commodification of wisdom. But there is a yet greater abuse of language that bespeaks such impatience that bleeds into cognitive laziness — the aphorism’s cousin, the cliché, arguably the most successful meme of language. In It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (public library), lexicographer and linguistics researcher Orin Hargraves embarks on a quest to empower you to “proceed with the confidence that you have made peace with clichés through greater understanding and that you have established a relationship with them that will serve your interests when you write and speak.”

That understanding begins with the word itself: Hargraves points out that it comes from French, where it originally denoted “a convenience of printing, specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies” — hence its present semantic representation of a reusable template-expression. Hargraves outlines his mission in unambiguous terms:

I have persisted in my attempt to stop some clichés in their flight, capture and anesthetize them, splay their dull wings, pin them to the specimen board, and make them visible for all to see, so that they may be revealed in their true lack of color. My intention is to make speakers and writers more aware of the occasions when they are using clichés or when they think that they need to — for it must surely be the case that clichés are largely used mindlessly, given their viral proliferation. An increased awareness of clichés and the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication should serve as a motive for language users to consider alternatives to them.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

Indeed, this viral nature of clichés is both the reason for their success and their greatest failure of imagination. Hargraves explains:

A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared… Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.

And yet defining what makes a cliché remains a tricky endeavor — while most language scholars agree that its core characteristics are “overuse and ineffectiveness,” it’s hard to arrive at agreement over these qualities or who is to judge their degree of manifestation. Hargraves writes:

Nearly all judgments about what constitutes a cliché have traditionally relied on consensus: if enough people think a form of words is overused, or if a person who is perceived as having some authority about language declares such a thing, then the word or phrase becomes a cliché. The result of this haphazard process is that many phrases are designated clichés without there being evidence of their frequent use. That is, infrequently used words and phrases may be deemed clichés, simply because a large number of people, or a small number of influential people, find them annoying or designate them as clichés for some other reason… But they are never annoying in equal measure, to the same people, in the same contexts, and for the same reasons.

But while human judgments of what constitutes overuse are invariably subjective, lexicographers can turn to artificial intelligence for a more reliable assessment. A corpus — “a collection of natural language in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of linguistic research” — can reveal statistical relationships between words and their usage in specific groupings in natural speech or writing. Hargraves explains:

From these statistics emerge portraits of the life of words, their mating habits, their abuses, their triumphs and failings, in a much clearer and more comprehensive light than can be gleaned from casual reading or listening; it is a portrait that is far more dependable than the one that results from merely consulting your intuition about how often a form of words is used or whether people use it consistently, aptly, or inappropriately. Modern computational lexicography makes it possible to learn at a glance which pairs or groups of words are getting together far more often than their overall frequency in the language suggests that they would. Such pairings of words are called collocations and may include typical combinations representing several different parts of speech, such as adjective + noun (like abject poverty), noun + noun (like software download), or adverb + verb (like virtually guarantee).

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Alistair Reid's 'Ounce Dice Trice,' a children's book that plays with extraordinary names for ordinary things. Click image for details.

Often, however, it is misuse rather than overuse that renders something a cliché. Hargraves offers an illustrative example:

Take the noun phrase best-kept secret. Best-kept, as an adjective, has few uses in English other than to precede the word secret, and discounting the adjective dark, best-kept is the adjective most likely to be found preceding secret in nearly every genre of writing. But as a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are “kept.” This, in effect, makes both parts of this compound expression not very meaningful. It is also the case that the best-kept secret is found preponderantly in journalism, a medium that is by its nature contrary to the idea of “secret.”

Indeed, Hargraves holds journalism particularly accountable for perpetuating clichés — the very tendency, no doubt, that originated the disparaging pun “churnalism.” He writes:

Of all genres … none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché… Many phrases originate in genres outside of journalism and continue to have a specific or technical meaning in their place of origin: matter of fact in law, for example, or exhibit a tendency in scientific writing. Once an expression has made a home in the fertile and supportive soil of journalism, however, it thrives and grows in thick patches, often losing its particular semantic characteristics.

He goes on to bemoan the fact that “journalism contains more clichés per unit of text than any other genre” and later hones the precision of his arrow, making the unambiguous assertion that “journalism is demonstrably the greatest repository of cliché in English,” adding that “this is not a criticism, just a fact.” Curiously, though, Hargraves makes a distinction between “journalism” and “blogging,” chastising them on a sliding scale of “spreading and popularizing (and thus further deadening) clichéd expressions” — a rather dated divide in an era when some of the best independent journalism takes place on “blogs” and every major print publication has an online presence of the “blog” variety. (Blogs, he argues, are “full of unedited writing that is shot through with clichés, which are gobbled up uncritically by the avid perusers of these genres” — a rather ungenerous depiction of online readers, to say nothing of writers.) Journalism, after all, is a genre of cultural commentary and criticism, and a blog is merely a platform for publishing, whatever the genre — comparing a genre to a platform seems, to use the appropriate and thus non-clichéd idiom, an apples-to-oranges proposition.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words,' 1948. Click image for details.

But misplaced distinction aside, Hargraves makes a gravely valid and urgent point about the responsibility of writers today, be they “journalists” or “bloggers,” in an age when writing is considered “content” and treated as the vacant page-filler the term implies; when Emerson and Longfellow’s journal lives on to publish “native advertising” for the Church of Scientology on the web and once-reputable business magazines have reincarnated as listicle-purveyors online. Echoing Schopenhauer’s lament on writing “for the sake of filling up paper,” Hargraves’s words ring with particular poignancy in our present context of formulaic language that borders on content farming:

People who are required to write — whether hastily or not — and those who write without any awareness of what separates good writing from bad, such as poorly educated students or poorly read adults, naturally write in a semiautomatic style… Taken together then, carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print.

[...]

Journalists are required to produce verbiage hastily most of the time. While their work is typically edited, it is not edited for clichés because cliché is a substantial part of the code of journalism, and consumers of journalism accept conventional and stereotyped ways of expressing ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, as part of the diet. Because of the natural tendency of speakers and writers to be influenced by what they read and hear, it is also inescapable that journalists are the greatest vectors of cliché in English.

Therein lies Hargraves’s most important point — a case for the eradication of clichés as a political act, part of our shared civic responsibility as readers, writers, and users of language. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s manifesto for the glory of language, he writes:

There is so much writing and speech that has clearly been done with no clear thought given to the purpose of the words that compose it. If all writing was entirely of this kind, it seems likely that people would be put off reading and clichés would live in a rather small, moribund world that would eventually extinguish itself. But we all must read, whether for entertainment, vital communication, or acquiring new information; and all of the writing we read is bound to contain some portion of cliché. Because of these factors we cannot help exposing ourselves to cliché and being infected by it. Whether we become active vectors of cliché ourselves is a matter of choice. All that is required for clichés to flourish is for good writers to disengage their attention from what they are doing.

[...]

A cliché in itself and by definition has no element of originality and if a cliché is to be used, it places greater demands on a thoughtful writer to justify its use in preference to a more straightforward or succinct expression. Requiring a cliché to do more than it normally does by extending its meaning, application, or reference is one way to do this.

What Penguin publisher Sir Allen Lane memorably said of design, Hargraves asserts about language:

It takes only a little more time, but considerably more effort, to write mindfully than it does to write mindlessly. You have to engage your intellect and examine the requirements of what you mean to express, and the words available to do it for you. But writing mindfully can be developed to become a habit with some effort, just as writing mindlessly becomes a habit with no effort.

In the remainder of It’s Been Said Before, Hargraves draws on corpus data to identify some of the most toxic clichés in the English language and goes on to equip us with the tools and critical thinking necessary for using more imaginative alternatives to them. Complement it with a stimulating examination of another centerpiece of linguistic communication, the magical world of metaphor, then revisit these five excellent books on language.

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21 JULY, 2014

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading, and How Art Creates a Sanctified Space for the Human Spirit

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“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

In September of 1994, beloved British writer Jeanette Winterson joined Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel on the air for a spectacular conversation, later published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the fantastic collection that also gave us Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.

Winterson — who was raised in a church and began writing sermons at age six with the intent of becoming a missionary, only to leave home at age fifteen after falling in love with another girl — reflects on what the preacher’s technique has in common with the artist. (After all, if the commencement address is the modern secular sermon of our time, it’s no wonder that the genre’s greatest exemplars are delivered overwhelmingly by celebrated writers.) She considers what evangelizing can teach a writer about compelling storytelling:

Of course it was extremely useful training to be brought up in an environment where you must attract other people to your way of thinking, you must win them over; it’s the art of persuasion, it’s rhetoric in the old-fashioned sense. I learned how to handle language and the spoken word and the written word, and I learned how to persuade. That’s what preachers do, that’s what preachers are, and the most successful preachers are the ones who are able to convince their audience that the audience themselves have got it wrong and the preacher’s got it right. And the artist tries to do this too—there are close parallels — except the artist does it in its own right, for its own sake, not for some higher purpose, not for God. You can see from the look on somebody’s face whether or not you’re persuading, and that does translate itself to the way you then write. It’s not that you have an audience in mind, it’s simply that you can imagine what will perhaps tilt the balance in your favor, how to get underneath the barriers and the defenses which people normally put up to protect themselves from intrusion.

Contemplating her greatest learning from the Bible, Winterson complements Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the glory of language by considering the liberating power of words:

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

Illustration by Sydney Pink. Click image for details.

When Wachtel points out Winterson’s signature sensitivity to “the artifice of language and its limitations,” the writer responds:

Yes, it is artificial, but it is, as yet, the best way human beings have found to communicate to one another their deepest, their most difficult, feelings. And that is the preserve of poetry and of true fiction, to put roots down through the surface into the subsoil of the human heart and to draw up those elements that would otherwise lie locked there, unheard, unspoken, perhaps unregarded. Language can do that, and I think that it is the duty of the writer to go on pushing language forward because if it’s not developing, if it’s not growing, if people aren’t using it in unique and different ways while at the same time regarding its tradition, then that language is going to start atrophying.

For Winterson, indeed, the artist has a moral obligation to this forward-facing elasticity of form. Echoing Henry Miller’s memorable assertion that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” she adds:

Art forms must always change… You cannot stop in art, you cannot fossilize art in a redundant form, and you cannot take a point in history and favor it above any other point and say, ah yes, this is the way to do it. If you want to read nineteenth-century novels, there are plenty for you to read, and you may as well read the real thing and not go out and buy a reproduction. Personally, I loathe reproduction furniture; I’d rather have something made by a living designer, just as I’d rather have something made by a writer now who, whilst recognizing patterns and traditions, is prepared to go on pushing the experiment forward.

Winterson argues that ordinary readers are much more receptive to the type of experimentation that pushes art forward than professional critics can be:

Readers, I think, are more sophisticated on the whole than critics. They can make the jumps, they can make imaginative leaps. If your structure is firm and solid enough, however strange, however unusual, they will be able to follow it. They will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, the right handholds. That’s what I want my readers to do: I want them to come with me when we’re going mountain-climbing. This isn’t a walk through a theme park. This is some dangerous place that neither of us has been before, and I hope that by traveling there first, I can encourage the reader to come with me and that we will make the trip again together, and safely.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

One of Winterson’s most pause-giving points transcends the realm of art and touches on cosmology and philosophy. Reflecting on her intense use of history in fiction, Winterson reminds us that time is an abstraction that both contains and responds to our experiences, and examines the relativity of “reality”:

I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock.

Responding to a line from her novel Art & Lies that Wachtel cites — “The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world, but a world in itself.” — Winterson expounds on the limitations of time and, in the process, shines a beautiful sidewise gleam on what all great art does for the human experience:

Art & Lies is a journey into deep inner space, and the characters in the book are not characters in the physical sense that we know them on the street or perhaps even in our own lives. They are consciousnesses. They are ways of talking about ourselves, writ large, as we might be, more than we are. I know that the world of Art & Lies is a strange one, but it is a deeply emotional one and it is one which probes and peels away at the complacencies and habits that we take for granted and drag behind us as so much baggage in our lives. The worlds that I create are always worlds where it’s possible to find new space, not to be cluttered any more, to leave behind things which perhaps drag you down, things that you don’t need. In the book there is this freedom from gravity that we’ve been talking about. It is a sanctified space. And when you come out of it, what you do is up to you; but for a while it puts away the clutter and the jangle of modern life and gives time, infinite time. It may take four hours to read the book but actually it takes an entire life. The journey that you make is not one of the clock: it’s an interior one, and in it you travel through time, through space, through place.

To Wachtel’s question of “why sanctified space,” Winterson answers:

Because it’s a space that has been cleansed of other associations. It is itself, it’s coherent, it’s self-realized, it exists in its own right. Every work of art must be that; it must be a closed world. That is, you must be able to enter it and find it coherent and orderly, and be able to return to it to discover things you hadn’t found at first. But there is something cathedral-like about it: it’s a place where you can rest, contemplate, refuel and go out again knowing that it remains there for you. All art presents a sanctified space.

And in order to be able to craft this sanctified space, Winterson argues, the artist must come at it from a place of love. Echoing Ray Bradbury’s spirited defense of the right motives and Bukowski’s poetic homage to the only reason to write, she tells Wachtel:

If I wasn’t in love with language, what right have I to be here talking to you? What right have I to put pen to paper? It’s more than a job: it’s a life, it’s a vocation, it’s everything to me, and I must fulfill myself in that way and by fulfilling myself, I hope that I can give the best possible work to my readers.

But for a writer to do this wholeheartedly, Winterson — whose habit of reading five hours a day is rivaled only by Susan Sontag’s — argues for the essential, systematic immersion in language:

Unless I have a thorough soaking in all writers who have written in English then I cannot call myself an English writer. It’s a fantastic language, and to be ignorant of it as a writer is a sin that must exact the ultimate penalty, I think. If hell exists, that’s why one would go there, for calling oneself a writer and not knowing anything about English literature.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Winterson returns to the role of art in human life and society — something she has since explored beautifully in a short essay — and adds to history’s most memorable reflections on art:

Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself. It gives you a kind of self-reliance. We all feel powerless and we can’t really manage to do anything because there’s just so much. I want to try and cut through those feelings of apathy and powerlessness and be a kind of rallying point, offer a rallying cry, to people who would otherwise feel dispossessed.

Wachtel, an elegant interviewer, springboards this into the grand question of how to live — perhaps the only common denominator between everything I read and write about here on Brain Pickings — to which Winterson answers with equal elegance:

It’s an individual answer, and it’s certainly not an answer that can be got easily. It’s the answer of a lifetime. It seems to me to be the work that we are here to do, to answer that question — first of all in our own lives and then as a community… But I do think [the question] has to be asked, and if people then begin to ponder on it and ask it of themselves, then that is a good thing. I do believe that when you start asking these questions, you find the answers that you need, if you’ll put in the effort, even if it takes a lifetime.

But the answer art gives us is that of many lifetimes. Winterson speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that, as Mark Twain once bluntly put it, everything is a combination of second-hand ideas, that art builds on what came before, that to create is to uncover existing relationships. Winterson reflects on the very origin of the word “invent,” which originally meant “to come upon” rather than to “devise” or “fabricate” out of nothing:

It’s from the Latin invenire, which means to come upon. This takes us back to Plato’s idea that we are in a continual state of remembering, that the human life span is to remember, to remember the things that we are, that we can be, that we’ve left behind — to remember the glories of the soul, as Plato would have seen it.

[...]

[For the artist] it is a question of always going back and uncovering what is already there because the artist is something of a dredger: you have to let down your net and pull up things from the mud, from the silt, that are unrecognizable, that have been forgotten, that have lain disused and ignored for a long time. You bring them up and you clean them off and you look at them and you bring them back into the present where they can speak, where they have a place. I think it’s a dual role of dredging and of cleaning, but then also of re-creating so that you are always offering something that is right for your own time, that is new in itself.

'Down the Rabbit Hole' by Lisbeth Zwerger from Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, Winterson returns to art’s function as psychoemotional therapy, its power in fortifying our psyche:

To learn how to heal yourself seems to me to be the most important thing that you can do because at that moment you are genuinely self-reliant, and if other people hurt you — as they will — it won’t matter because you have now in your own hands the tools of healing.

[...]

I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honorable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn’t believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.

More Writers & Company, a sequel to Wachtel’s first compendium of interviews, is a superb read in its totality, featuring conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

Complement this one with Winterson on adoption, belonging, and how we use storytelling to save ourselves and the value of art to the human spirit.

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24 JUNE, 2014

Susan Sontag on Being in the Middle versus Being at the Center

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Why true neutrality is not an abstinence from taking sides of but an act of compassion.

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in reflecting on how language shapes our capacity for fantasy. And because language is intricately entwined with everything from our cognitive function to gender politics to the evolution of creativity, it also shapes our experience of reality — and of ourselves in reality — even more profoundly.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — her superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that was among the best books of 2013 and also gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, how our cultural polarities imprison us, and love, sex, and the world between — comes Sontag’s characteristically insightful meditation on the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of language in helping us navigate the world and orient ourselves not only in relation to it but in relation to ourselves as well. She tells Cott:

What’s so wonderful about language is that we have these positive and negative words for the same thing. That’s why language is an infinite treasure. When we say in the middle, we think of someone who wants to remain equidistant from certain alternatives because he or she is afraid to take sides. But being in the center — isn’t that interesting? The whole thing changes.

[…]

One can think of it in the time sense. But “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said, “The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. And that’s another sense of being in the middle. But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, which is what happens to a lot of people because they can’t see anymore. And from where they’re hanging, it’s just a struggle not to fall off completely.

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

When Cott relays the famous anecdote that Johann Sebastian Bach preferred playing the alto or tenor parts in an orchestra because being in the middle allowed him to truly hear the music around him, Sontag responds with a remark doubly poignant in the context of today’s net neutrality debates and why they matter:

That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of “I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is truly an exceptional and wonderfully wide-ranging treasure. Sample it further here, here, and here, then revisit Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of photography, and why lists appeal to us.

Donating = Loving

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