Notes and Comments
  Malicious Obfuscation (Internet article)  
Excerpts from Perfect Phrases

“’Perfect phrases’ is quite an ambitious claim.  How perfect are the phrases in this book?  They’re perfect grammatically, and they're perfectly understandable. And – except where noted – they're perfectly appropriate for the occasion context for which I'm recommending them.  But they may not be perfect for every occasion or speaker.  Each paragraph between double quotes “ ” is a connected whole, but you may want to take pieces of it or use only a section.  I’ve written many of the paragraphs so that you can pull out sentences or groups of sentences that will stand on their own.” 


“When you use clear, simple language (as in my phrases) and present a speech that has a discernable structure and purpose, you show the audience that you care about them and that you’ll make it as easy and enjoyable as possible to hear what you have to say.” 


“Your goal is to make your listeners like you and bond with you, even as they accept the argument, information, inspiration, or whatever you’re offering.  If you can do that, and thus provide real ‘audience value,’ you’ve given a great speech – the exact speech that the occasion calls for, a speech in which the audience’s needs are fully met and the speaker’s goals fully achieved. – on the basis of characteristics."


“Bond with the listeners by working from what you and they have in common.  It probably has to do with why you’re there.  At least mention or refer to it in some positive and complimentary way.  You can even build your own speech around it if it’s appropriate.”


“Even though a speech is essentially a monologue, it is also a live communication and thus bears some resemblance to a conversation.  Successful speeches simulate this conversational element and include the audience through the skillful use of interactive language.” 


“The persuasive words that I’m about to show you go way beyond politeness.  They subtly influence the way the audience sees reality – so once you’re conscious of their power, you must use them ethically and with good judgment.”


“Perhaps no piece of software is as universally loved and hated as PowerPoint.  Organizations seem addicted to it in the medical sense of the word: I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t stop.  Many people feel that PowerPoint somehow obstructs communication and understanding, but their organizations insist on it, and the sense of expectation is so strong that no one dares defy it.” 


“The continuing expansion of English around the globe means that you’ll be communicating with more and more new native speakers from traditionally non-English-speaking countries and regions.  Because of the number of new speakers and the worldwide cultural prominence of English, there are many situations where misinterpretation can take place. The good news is that only eight writing and editing principles will cover a very large number of cases and considerably reduce the burden on the non-native reader/listener.”


“For a long time, there’s been a debate among speechwriters over whether speakers should conclude with ‘Thank you’ or ‘Thank you very much’ – or just end the speech.  After all, if we write the ending effectively enough, won’t everybody know it’s the end?


“There’s nothing wrong with one final expression of appreciation for your listeners’ giving you their time (after perhaps braving the traffic, weather, or other obstacles) and attention, which they divert from a dozen other distractions (though probably not always successfully).  These are great gifts, and one must take every opportunity to express gratitude for them.  Thank you very much for reading this book and for letting me help you be a better communicator.”



Excerpts from Writing Great Speeches


"Maybe you already have some or all of the content of your speech, in the form of 'topics I want to discuss' or 'points I want to make.' Or maybe all you have is the subject, and you have to develop content from scratch. Whichever it is, you begin by asking the first of several questions will lead you to your subject matter itself, namely, ‘What's my purpose?Purpose controls content means that your decisions as to what to write must be covered in part by whatever changes you see to making your listeners' minds, lives, or behaviors."


"Regardless of which ending strategy you choose, always try for a final 'crescendo,' so that – just as with the end of the musical performance – the audience is that the heightened emotional state of the satisfying sense of closure. To do this, you must focus on all aspects of the closing."


"The people who write want-ads for communicators and insist that candidates must be familiar with this or that industry don't understand what they're advertising for. They think that it's what you know that will make you a good communicator. They're equating education with subject matter, whereas what really counts – especially now, when today's knowledge is obsolete tomorrow – is an agile mind that can locate absorb, integrate, and evaluate new information."


"An economical speech uses as few words as possible. It doesn't tax the audience's endurance or attention span. It's the shortest text that fulfills both speaker's purposes and the audience's needs."


"The symbolic process works like this: words and phrases really represent reality in ways that are understood and agreed upon by speakers of the language. That's part of what it means to 'know a language.' So a writer's decision to use a particular word is in fact the decision to classify a certain piece of reality – to put it in the group that deserves this particular label – on the basis of its characteristics.”


"Think of your speech as a story – and of yourself as storyteller. The parts of it that occur earlier in real life occur earlier in the speech. Thus, I would always talk about my 'experiences' before I got into the 'lessons learned,' because that (unfortunately) is the way real life works."


"To edit for clarity is to go through your script, pretending someone else wrote it relentlessly examining each sentence for unmistakable, crystalline clarity of meaning. As you do, employ the following seven strategies…"


"Be sensitive to jingling rhythms and unintentional rhymes that distract listeners, e.g., the relaxation of limitations on the regulation of transportation."


"Your speech will be much more effective if you can learn to arrange material in the appropriate order – and convey that order to the audience. Why are these skills so critical? Because the arrangement of your text – in other words, the relationship of your ideas to each other – is an important part of your message."


“Another way to make your speech more listenable is to improve closure. Because communication is received linearly, listeners not only process the structure of the early part of the sentence; they also form hunches about the structure of the rest of the sentence well before they actually get to the end. You can help them do this by setting up expectations about how the sentence will go – and then by fulfilling them."


"All effective ceremonial speeches have one thing in common: they interpret the event. Yes, it's true, you're there to introduce, dedicate, or accept. But why?… Your ceremonial speeches should leave no doubt as to why you and your audience are gathered together. It should tell the listeners what thoughts and feelings are appropriate to such gathering."


"As you prepare to deliver those all-important first words, I must warn you against the following violations of etiquette, including, but not limited to…


  • Disavowal of public speaking ability. Nothing I know turns audiences off more effectively than' well, not much of a speaker so here goes nothing?' If you're not so popular figure it out for themselves and not. Just do the best job possible with the skills you have – and skip the disclaimers.


  • Gratuitous and/or protracted humor. Many people think a speech begins with humor, but the fact is that you are not there as an entertainer. So refrain from telling your favorite joke unless it's hilarious, G-rated, and relevant. Similarly, the audience is not interested in a long, meandering account of what happened to you just the other day on the way over here. No matter how amusing it seems you, skip it, unless you're sure it will genuinely funny to your listeners (you might field-test with an audience member or two before the speech) and relevant to the audience, occasion, and speech.”


“I can’t overemphasize this: keep it simple.  Almost all speeches try to pack in far too much information and go way beyond the audience’s attention span and retention capability.  Confine yourself to a very few points that relate to your central purpose.”


“Make sure that in the last 30-60 seconds of your speech, your listeners understand precisely what you’re trying to tell them and what change in their thought or behavior you are advocating."


“Public speaking has an undeserved reputation as a source of anxiety.  But there’s really very little to worry about.  If you’ve adequately prepared – if you fully understand your audience and have carefully crafted your message – you’ll be fine.  Preparation is the key.”  


“A gracious opening, a strong closing, a show of enthusiasm for an organization’s mission, a willingness to share credit, a focus on ‘audience value’ – these and other examples and techniques that I’ll show you are all implicit signs that you care about whether your listeners understand you...and about whether you connect with them.”


 “There are two writing styles that represent polar opposites, as well as a great many possibilities in between. One extreme is the personal style; this is the language of communication between familiars or equals. The other is the impersonal style, the language of power and authority."


A Communicator's Guide to Buzzwords


[Scene: Corridor, somewhere in Corporate America]

Wally (to Dilbert): Here's your"Buzzword Bingo" card for the meeting. If the boss uses a buzzword on your card, you check it off. The objective is to fill a row.

[Scene: Conference room.]

Pointy-haired Boss: You're all very attentive today. My proactive leadership must be working! Wally: Bingo, sir!

Buzzwords fascinate me the way a new species of butterfly excites a lepidopterist. They are so different from what has gone before that they are truly a new class of word.

Buzzwords are not just in-group words, which, of course, have a long history and are variously known as "slang," "argot," "jargon," and "cant."

Nor are they simply fad- or vogue-words, which have existed as long as fads themselves. Back in the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson complained that "Man is a creature who lives not by bread alone, but principally by catchwords."

Buzzwords are a contemporary phenomenon, created by the confluence of three forces: (1) an unprecedented profusion of new words and phrases, principally from two new sources, information technology and management science; (2) the prominence of these two fields in everyday life; and (3) and the cyber-interconnectedness of all the people involved with them. Thus, buzzwords arise and spread faster than new words ever have, and - because of who's using them - they're impossible for the rest of us to ignore.

The sheer number of buzzwords and the rapidity with which they spread have resulted in another new linguistic phenomenon: a widely-used, many-faceted, socially- and economically-defined workplace dialect. It pervades organizational life. All top management people, and many others besides, seem to learn it by osmosis.

Within the vast group of linguistic items colloquially called "buzzwords," there's a subset that I call "true buzzwords." These may have been the first to bear the label, perhaps because their meaning is obscure to new audiences (who, according to one explanation I've read, hear only a buzz), or perhaps because everyone's talking about whatever it is they label (in which case the root would be buzz, 'gossip, hearsay').

Words of this sort typically progress through sociolinguistic time and space very quickly, in our media-drenched age. They arise in response to a new and significant phenomenon or insight that someone important thinks is worth naming; their fate thus tends to parallel the fate of the phenomenon itself.

In the buzzword life cycle, the first stage is EMERGENCE. The buzzword denotes a newly-discovered or newly-important concept, especially one that appears to unify whole bodies of knowledge (e.g., consilience, paradigm) or to have significant implications for a particular field, e.g, in business, continuous improvement, value chain, positioning, reengineering.

The next stage is PROMINENCE. The buzzword is bandied about by all the cognoscenti in a particular field - since one sign of in-group membership is to use the same words as the rest of the group - then by the mass media, then in everyday colloquial speech, as its explanatory power is tested in the real world. Derived and metaphoric meanings may appear.

The final stage is DISILLUSIONMENT AND RIDICULE. The concept, along with the associated buzzword, goes out of fashion, for a variety of reasons: it wasn't so hot after all; it did more harm than good; it had unintended consequences; too many of the wrong people are using it; it didn't really explain what we thought it explained; it turned out in practice to be something completely different.

In this final stage, buzzword is regarded with distaste. In some cases, it may be tarred as "doublespeak" - that is, it's perceived as an attempt at euphemism, which most people aren't buying.

Sarcastic definitions appear; these may focus on any or all of the above failings, as with the following examples from a mid-90s piece in Forbes (2/20/95):

Team player: An employee who substitutes the thinking of the herd for his own good judgment.

Vision: Top management's heroic guess about the future, easily printed on mugs, T-shirts, posters, and calendar cards.

Restructuring: A simple plan instituted from above, in which workers are rightsized, downsized, surpluses, lateralized or, in the business jargon of yore, fired.

In business, education, politics, and perhaps everywhere in organizational life, some of these "true buzzwords" are the labels for management fads, which always begin from above.

So it's easy to see why disillusionment with a fad - and its buzzword(s) - can contribute to a linguistic rift between managers and employees, especially when words of the restructuring/reengineering/downsizing/rightsizing category all too often turn out to be euphemisms for bad things happening to employees.

We see this process at work when Michael Hammer, who coined the term reengineering, laments the fact that "some people think that reengineering means downsizing because some vulgar morons decided to apply it to their downsizing efforts because they were too embarrassed to call it downsizing" (interview, Fast Company, 9/01). Unfortunately, Mike, you can't copyright the meaning of a word - and reengineering all too often does involve downsizing.

It's also easy to understand the origin and popularity of Buzzword Bingo, which is the subject of at least one book, The Buzzword Bingo Book, subtitled The Complete, Definitive Guide to the Underground Workplace Game of Corporate Jargon and Doublespeak (Lara Stein and Benjamin Yoskovitz, New York: Lark Productions, 1998; the authors' use of the term doublespeak reflects the fact, noted above, that some buzzwords do become unsuccessful euphemisms).

The authors include a preface with an entertainingly written but almost totally off-the-mark discussion of the nature and origin of buzzwords. But there's no reason to doubt their historical account of how Buzzword Bingo came to be:

"[The] addiction to buzzwords isn't pleasant to behold. In fact, the ordinary employees figured out pretty quick that they were being jerked around by the managers in love with the sound of their own buzzwords. So the rank and file decided to fight back. Their weapons were more like spitballs than Minuteman missiles. And it was more a silent underground insurrection than a violent massacre. It was a bloodless revolution that took place in the back rows of seminars and business meetings across the land. And it was called Buzzword Bingo.
"Knowing that they were listening to drivel, lots of the regular employees just snickered to themselves as the managers and consultants spouted buzzwords for their own purposes. But Tom Davis, a Silicon Valley scientist and founder of Silicon Graphics, had a revelation. One day while staring at a blackboard covered with buzzword terms, the proverbial lightbulb flickered above his head and the game Buzzword Bingo was born. He went back to his desk and created a program that could shuffle a whole database of buzzwords and generate bingo cards filled with the terms. He handed cards out to colleagues and challenged them to play at the next meeting. Needless to say, the game was a rousing success.
"Buzzword Bingo spread like a computer virus from B-school to B-school and into every nook and cranny of the corporate landscape. But it remained a somewhat anonymous, underground, interoffice survival tool until Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, mentioned the game in his comic strip. [The Dilbert strip at the beginning of this article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 2/22/94; it was reprinted in a 9/3/01 Business Week article, which reports that "corporate gobbledygook is still on the rise."]
"Suddenly, the whispers about Buzzword Bingo became outright laughter, which on occasion broke out during a meeting. From that day on, Buzzword Bingo began to gain an avid following of rabble-rousing revolutionaries, who remained in the shadows but played the game nevertheless.
"The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article in June 1998 and blew the lid off the whole thing."

Indeed. The Journal (6/8/98) reported that "the game has spread up and down the corporate and governmental landscape like an out-of-control empowerment session." The article noted that seniors at MIT played the game during an Al Gore speech. The students cheered when Gore said "paradigm," and Gore, shameless as ever, asked, "Did I hit a buzzword?" In Britain, Labor politicians played the game while Tony Blair spoke.

Three years later, despite the slow economy and tight job market (which would presumably militate against ridicule of management), Buzzword Bingo still thrives. There's even an installable networked version, complete with chat room for players.

As communicators, we must never insult an audience's intelligence or its dignity. So how do we handle buzzwords, which have such power to both unite and antagonize?

To understand the subtlety and complexity of buzzwords, we must adopt the impartial, objective stance of the socio-linguist, who studies the ways in which language mediates power and other social relationships. Socio-linguists also listen carefully to people's feelings and judgments about how others talk. These judgments are often influenced by feelings (positive or negative) about the speakers themselves and are thus further indicative of the relationships between groups.

I look at business buzzwords as an objective socio-linguist, and here's the question that occurs to me: if managers are the prestige (or at least the power) group, why wouldn't employees just learn the buzzwords instead of staging a "bloodless revolution" with a passive-aggressive stunt like Buzzword Bingo? Apparently because they've chosen not to. But since one of the factors that unite an organization (or a society) is a common language, what does the prevalence of Buzzword Bingo say about workplace relations?

In The Buzzword Bingo Book, Stein and Yoskovitz argue that the enduring power of buzzwords is due to the fact that they give a "heady rush" to managers, who then "[rely] on the use of clever-sounding but incomprehensible words and phrases - buzzwords - to maintain an aura of mystery and power." Maybe in some cases and maybe at first, but "incomprehensible" grossly overstates the case. Buzzwords can certainly be learned by other people - how else would they spread?

In-group jargon won't go away. Nor will buzzwords. One always has the choice to learn the language of the in-group - or to reject it, depending on one's attitude toward the in-group.

Buzzword Bingo represents rejection. I can appreciate the game's appeal. I'm all for having fun at work, and I love to puncture pomposity as much as the next person. But the fact that the game is so widespread - an AOL search turned up over 560 pages of web sites - indicates, in my view, a problem that's now endemic in organizational life. If they're playing it where you work, it's not a good sign. There's already a rift between management and employees - or between different levels of management. Buzzword Bingo is just an expression of what's already there.

It's also a symptom that meetings have degenerated into total irrelevance, that people are ridiculing each other instead of working together, that management communication is inept and ineffective, and that management has lost credibility and support. Under such conditions, I cannot imagine that the organization's performance wouldn't be affected (or, as some might say, impacted).

If you see Buzzword Bingo cards, it's a sign that at the very least, management communications need a total overhaul and the organization needs to take a very hard look at meetings and presentations of all kinds - why they're held, how they're conducted, what they really accomplish.

How do you avoid buzzwords that confuse or disrespect your audience?

The answer begins with the fact that not all of the words regarded as "buzzwords" are the same, as we can see by returning to The Buzzword Bingo Book. Stein and Yoskovitz have pulled together a large number of items that are regarded (by whom, we don't know) as buzzwords. The authors don't say how they compiled their lexicon. It may have come from Davis' original 1993 list, augmented over the years by eager collectors.

In any event, the original lexicographers, whoever they are, have cast their net wide indeed. A cursory inspection (I went as far as the letter "d") reveals that the buzzwords that attract the most attention - i.e., the ones I call "true buzzwords" (which stand for something really new) and the buzzwords-turned-euphemisms (which are the most negatively regarded buzzwords of all) - are a minority, dwarfed by large numbers of words that span a number of categories.

The first step in understanding buzzwords, then, is to acquaint yourself with the kinds of words that are likely to be perceived as buzzwords. What follows is a partial classification. I went through the book and assigned words to categories until no new categories appeared. I've also added examples from my own observations. That's not to say there aren't other categories lurking beyond "d"- or even beyond The Buzzword Bingo Book. But the ones included here account for a very large number of what are perceived as buzzwords.

(1) TRUE BUZZWORDS: 24/7, 1:1, 80:20, analysis paralysis, anchoring concept, disintermediation, sticky.

(2) BUZZWORDS-TURNED-EUPHEMISMS: available for reassignment, benefit ('feature'), challenge ('problem,' 'obstacle,' 'screw-up'), coach ('boss'), cost-effective ('cheap'), decontent (verb, 'to cheapen'), decruitment, downsize, issue (see challenge).

(3) BUSINESS JARGON. Words and phrases for activities and individuals inherent to business and the workplace. By far the largest class. Four sub-types:

(3a) Business shorthand. Terms for the things that business people need to talk about all the time. Items in this list are more concise than their everyday-English translations, and there is no simple equivalent outside business. Examples:, cash-effective, change agent, close the loop, co-create, comfort zone, co-petition, core competency, critical success factor, deliverable (as a noun), deck ('PowerPoint hard copy'), dotted-line relationship, optimize, proactive, win-win. This category also includes numerous high-tech terms, e.g., alpha release, cross-platform technology, distributed system, wizard.

(3b) Adaptations. Words adapted or borrowed from everyday speech or from other disciplines. These may be found in other contexts, but they have a meaning particular to business, and it is the use of the word with this meaning that functions as the signal of in-group membership. Examples: 110%, actualize, aggregate (verb), asset ('a person'), backload, Band-Aid, benchmark, big picture, big win, break the rules, buy in, champion (N and V) closure, come on board, constituency, consensus builder, context switch, co-opt, (corporate) image, create a new space, customizable, deploy(ment), discrete.

(3c) Business synonyms. Words that function as in-group signals in a business context, even though equivalent synonyms exist and are admissible, even in a business context. Examples: attack (as in attack the problem), alliance, ball's in X's court, best-in-class, core competency, dialog (noun and verb), dimensionalize, critical path ('home stretch'), (dis)incent, drill down, desensification ('desensitization'), dynamic, visibility ('prominence' or, more recently, 'prescience').

(3d) Jargon with derived, metaphorical meaning. Examples: algorithm ('any methodical approach'), bandwidth ('ability to deal with challenges'), collectivity ('human interactions').

(4) BUSINESS SLANG. These items are similar to jargon in that interpreting them requires quite a bit of insider knowledge. Also, like other slang terms, they have irreverent metaphoric content and involve unusual, sometimes ludicrous-sounding blendings of words and word-parts.

Some of them may be "nonce" words (i.e., words that appear only once); others, "sniglets," comedian Rich Hall's term for words that don't exist but should. Almost all qualify also as "business shorthand," in that they have no synonyms and are shorter than the phrases it would take to define them. Examples: 404 ('clueless, ' from Web error message code), alpha geek, osmosis, be epilepsy, best-of-breed, Betamaxed, blame storming, bleeding edge, brain dump, bug, cash cow, chainsaw consultant, cherry picking, close the loop, cannibalize, cobweb, cube farm, dancing baloney, deep weeds, drop-dead date.

(5) SPEECH MANNERISMS. A very small but visible class. Examples: At Stanford/MIT/etc., we....; collectively, as a group (it's the redundancy that's the buzzword).

Now that you know what to look for, it's your turn to play corporate socio-linguist. Listen to the buzzword usage of everyone around you, from top managers on down. Who's saying what to whom - and in what situations? Also, pay attention, during casual conversation, to people's comments and judgments on other people's (especially management's) language.

The true buzzwords and buzzwords-turned-euphemisms require the closest attention. Just as you sniff a milk carton to see if the contents have begun to turn sour, you must employ your linguistic detective's nose to determine when a true buzzword is moving from prominence to disillusionment and when it has begun to take on the distaste of a failed euphemism.

Language-related items in the business press can be an invaluable source of data on usage in the world at large. Fortune, for example, has an occasional brief feature entitled "Buzzwords." The entry for May 14, 2001 noted that visibility is "a euphemism employed by CEOs that indicates they have no idea what's going on with their business or where it's headed (Example: 'Since 73% of our sales are to the telecom space, we have absolutely no visibility about Q3.')."

It's clear that the word started out as a synonym for 'foreknowledge,' but it was used so frequently to soften a statement about the lack of same that it's now regarded as an unsuccessful euphemism.

When the milk goes sour, it's time to toss it. It's the same for a buzzword. Purge the objectionable item from your communications and if questioned, argue as persuasively as you can that the word or phrase is impeding communication, not facilitating it.

The remaining categories function mainly as shorthand and signals of in-group membership. If the management of an organization is using a term but employees are not, the problem may be intelligibility. Consider providing a brief definition in your communications, at least at first. If you get the sense that everybody knows what it means but that some groups are not using it anyway, the word requires close scrutiny, because it may have moved into one of the two controversial categories.

The only other problem with the jargon and slang words in Categories 3 and 4 is overuse. Since they serve two very key purposes - signaling in-group membership and referring to things people have to talk about all the time - it's easy to resort to them all the time. But repetition can breed annoyance. If you see and hear the same term over and over - and especially if you hear negative comments about it - try substituting synonyms occasionally. (Of course, there can't be any substitution for the buzzwords that label an organization's strategies, values, or other fundamental concepts.)

Stick to these principles and your communications will not offend or divide - but will help bring people together in the common pursuit of success.


A really excellent quote on writing,
from science-fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin:

A Few Words to a Young Writer:

Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well, they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper."

Alan Perlman's favorite quote on persuasion:

During my 23 plus years as a professional speechwriter, I've encountered dozens, perhaps hundreds of quotes on persuasion. For most of that time, this one has been the top of my list. It remains my all-time favorite quote on persuasion:

"The truth is that which most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often."

It comes from Paul Joseph Goebbels, a literate, sophisticated man who turned his talents to evil ends as Hitler's Propaganda Minister. He understood the principle so effectively employed by modern advertisers and politicians: most people don't listen carefully, reflect on what they hear, or compare it critically to anything else they might have heard the same subject. Thus, President Bush was able to get something like 67% of all Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the World Trade Center disasters, merely by mentioning the two side-by-side -- over and over.

To put the skills of an academically trained linguist and professional writer to work on your next project, contact Alan at 847-433-8569 or via e-mail.


Beyond "Fun" linguistics: The Deconstruction of BS and the Search for Truth

I suppose I should not be shocked by the trivialization, in the popular view, of the discipline to which I devoted so many years of my life and still consider myself a practitioner: linguistics -- the objective, scientific study of language. I'm not surprised because many sciences get trivialized. The ongoing search for knowledge of nutrition spawns health fads and new diets galore. The data of biology and astrophysics are twisted to support crackpot theories of creationism. The bewilderingly complex study of climate change is as polluted by politics and emotion as the environment is itself polluted with human, toxic waste.

Fun Stuff

So I’m not surprised that mostly all the public sees of linguistics is what I call "fun" or "schoolmarm" linguistics. 

Yes, there have been very insightful books on verbal self-defense by Suzette Haden Elgin, as well as much useful language study by Deborah Tannen.  Other than that, linguists are silent, except for the irrepressible Chomsky, one of the most overrated minds of all time (though I agree with much of his criticism of American imperialism). 

What we see in “fun” linguistics is not serious pursuit of the truth via the tools of linguistics…but cocktail party chatter.  Fun linguistics is preoccupied with questions such as...

-- Which of two expressions is correct (or “more correct”?)
-- Where did this word or expression come from?
-- What is the trajectory of the current cliché or buzzword?
-- What slogan or saying has this or that celebrity made popular (e.g., throw under the bus)?
-- What are the many meanings of this word or phrase?

That's all I ever see.  It's fun stuff, doesn't hurt anybody or ruffle any feathers. William Safire has made a second livelihood out of it, and more power to him.  But he is not the only language maven in the land.

Path to Truth

What about linguistics not as a source of cocktail party chatter... or as a way to play linguistic "gotcha" games of correctness and one-upmanship -- but as a legitimate branch of knowledge, as the search for truth? 

What do the facts of language tell us about ourselves and the way we shape our world and manipulate each other?  If the subjects are never discussed, then all the bullshit and manipulation can continue unquestioned, and for some people that is unquestionably a good thing.

It is good to keep certain kinds of knowledge from people. 

Three of the properties of language to which most people are quite blind are the ability to talk about things that are not there; the ability to assign multiple labels to the same reality; and the ability to comprehend multiple realities under one label (i.e., have different meanings), depending on one's feelings and perspective. 

From this it follows that the meaning of a phrase or word is what the speaker/writer intends it to be, provided that this meaning is also understood by the audience.  Many factors go into it, but communication is a two-way street.

BTW, I’m also a big fan of sentence diagramming, a lost art.  It really helps you to see what a string of words means.  It’s beneficial to persuaders of all kinds – clerics, politicians, marketers – for people to have limited discernment in this matter (just as the case for evolution is best kept secret from fundamentalists), and indeed they do.  Any plausible-sounding string of words is assumed to have some meaning, when all too often is it nothing more than a string of feel-good words (e.g., most New Age psychobabble).

Essence of BS

One of the simple intellectual techniques is that manipulators -- notably, politicians, marketers, and clerics -- would rather not be widespread... it is the ability to determine the meaningfulness of the sentence.  You would think that would be quite a simple matter.  Just decipher the grammar, figure out what each word means, and you’ve got it.

It doesn’t work that way in actual practice.  Some of the sentences we compose have multiple meanings or even contradict themselves... or have no meaning at all.  They may refer to entities that do not exist.

Yet -- and this is the important point -- they all SOUND as if they have meaning -- they may be completely grammatical -- and so one assumes that they indeed are meaningful, without applying the simple techniques of attention to words and what, if anything, they refer to in the real world.

This brings us to the essence of bullshit: the skillful intermingling of the language about the unreal (or, alternatively, vague abstractions) with language about the real, thus confusing an imaginary, subjective, fantasy world with the actual one of common experience.

By this criterion, much or most of the language of advertising, religion, and politics is bullshit.  It slides by so effortlessly, because simple techniques of understanding language -- and thus understanding when it goes awry -- are simply not part of the public curriculum.

The Best

You don’t have to be an academic in order to make incisive observations about language.

For decades I have admired George Carlin in his many incarnations.  I remember him on the Johnny Carson Show as a fast-talking newscaster and as Al Sleet, The Hippy-Dippy Weather Man (“Tomorrow’s high – whenever I get up, man.”).

The Seven Words routine was classic.  Years ago I played it in my linguistics classes to teach that they’re just words.  Typically, one or two students would walk out.

Of course, I, as an academic/practical linguist, appreciate Carlin’s linguistic genius most of all his talents. 

Years ago, I was astonished by Lenny Bruce’s boldness.   He was right.  They’re just WORDS.

Regrettably, we have made little progress, and there were always plenty of targets for Carlin’s brilliant wit and laser logic.  Especially about taboo words.

Here’s a great summary of Carlin as linguist:

I could hardly improve on that, but I can elaborate a bit on Carlin's linguistic genius.  His cleansing truth about words and meanings has done humanity more good than all the politicians in Washington combined (and their sniveling media flacks).  Throw in all the academic linguists too. 

Iconoclasts and challengers of the taboo, especially language taboos, are needed now, as they always have been. They're just WORDS. 

I for one would like to see people chill out about fuck and let it, in its many uses, add to the expressiveness of the language.  If you really want to fucking emphasize a word, there's no better way to do it...or to show your displeasure and disrespect (a "fucking idiot" is worse than a mere "idiot"). 

The usage of this word alone, with its taboos (it's just a WORD), would fill a book and probably has.  It’s a great linguistic resource.  It’s even an infix (“un-fucking-believable!”

The Truth

George Carlin did his share of fun linguistics and weird language questions…but he went WAY beyond that to tell the truth about the way we give people, through words, far too much power over us.

The tide of bullshit continues to rise, but Carlin’s statue will never be washed away.  He told the truth.