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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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25 JULY, 2014

Migrant: An Alice in Wonderland for the Modern Immigrant Experience

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A compassionate chronicle of the laboring nomad’s optimism and wistfulness.

Having spent my entire adult life as an immigrant, with all the relocations, bureaucracies, and social strain implied, I have tremendous respect for any effort to capture the complexities of the immigrant experience, its joys and its struggles, without robbing it of dimension. So I was instantly enamored with Migrant (public library) — a gem of a picture-book by Canadian writer Maxine Trottier and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, the artist who also gave us the wonderful Jane, the Fox & Me, a graphic novel inspired by Charlotte Brönte, and Virginia Wolf, a picture-book reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s childhood with her sister Vanessa.

Migrant tells the story of Anna, the youngest child in a large family of German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico, who venture to Canada to work as fruit and vegetable harvest laborers each spring. As Trottier points out in the afterword, they are part of a long tradition of people from all around the world, who have come to North America seeking not only a livelihood but also freedom, opportunity, a new beginning.

Arsenault’s tender illustrations bring a soft acceptance to Anna’s conflicting feelings — optimism and wistfulness, isolation and togetherness — feelings, I imagine, common to the immigrant experience and present in varying proportions in the heart of every nomad since the dawn of humanity.

Ripe with metaphor, Trottier’s beautiful, rhythmic narrative traces Anna’s imaginative interpretations of her reality. Too young to labor, the girl sees the rest of her family as a hive of worker bees.

When her parents’ backs are bent under the hot sun, when her older brothers and sisters dip and rise, dip and rise over the vegetables, that is when all of them are bees.

As they move into yet another empty house near the field, she imagines herself as a jack rabbit living in an abandoned burrow. (The scene, as Arsenault portrays it — Anna with her giant rabbit ears, surrounded by teacups — has a decided Alice in Wonderland feel, perhaps a subtle, intentional reflection of the strangeness and surreality a migrant invariably experiences in a foreign land.)

At night, Anna curls up with her sister as they sleep like a litter of kittens, while their brothers burrow together like puppies in the other room. Unable to understand the locals when the family shops for groceries “at the cheap store,” she hears their unfamiliar language as “a thousand crickets all singing a different song.” The family, with its annual journey from Mexico to Canada and back, becomes a flock of migratory geese.

A sweet and curious little girl, Anna wonders what a life of stability might be like — a life where she has her own bed and her own bicycle, where she watches the seasons come and go, rather than coming and going with them.

It is ultimately a tale at once hopeful and harrowing — a poignant catalyst for compassion, in reminding us how so many people live, and a testament, in Anna’s flights of the imagination, to Jeanette Winterson’s assertion that we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

But fall is here, and the geese are flying away.

And with them Anna goes, like a monarch, like a robin, like a feather in the wind!

Migrant comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books. Complement it with Larry and Friends, a charming illustrated ode to the immigrant experience.

Images courtesy of House of Anansi

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25 JULY, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo & Trafalgar.' Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

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