In a shocking time, after horrific events, words rush to mind: “unspeakable,” though we speak about what’s happened nonstop; “unimaginable,” though we are imagining the atrocity at that very moment, with the help of CNN and Youtube. Inevitably, prefabricated words and phrases leap into the reeling sense of chaos – “tragedy” is often repeated ad nauseum, though the very function of the dramatic form is precisely to bring order and sense to chaos.
But we warned about this misleading, commonplace phrase earlier: From the New York Times (and, really, just about everywhere else, too): “A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.
Since the crime appears to have been perpetrated by a lone nutter, Anders Behring Breivik, the Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami group’s desire to assume responsibility for the attack is cheering. Will they be coming to Norway to help nurse the victims, console families, and rebuild gutted buildings? No? … well… we thought not.
Terrorism, of course, is rife with its own clichés. “Helpers of the Global Jihad”? Please. Within minutes of the announcement, twitterer @billmurphy responded: “‘Helpers of the Global Jihad’ is the worst name for a terrorist group ever.” Helpers of the Global Jihad? … Sounds so familiar and cozy – “We aim to please.”
Speaking of terrorism, the murderer appears to have been a member of the far-right “Progress Party.” A few months back, the Book Haven questioned the rebranding of Democrats under the self-congratulatory term, “progressives,” and received a few verbal punches. But now do you see what we mean? Any group can insist that it represents “progress” – broadly construed to mean the way someone imagines the future to be headed – and hijack the term to make itself sound like hot stuff. The term “progress” merely signifies an opinion, not an agenda.
The remarks of Norway’s Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, a bespectacled former journalist, on the occasion of this atrocity have been bracing and graceful:
You will not destroy us,” the prime minister said. “You will not destroy our democracy, or our commitment to a better world.
We are a small country nation, but a proud nation. No one shall bomb us to silence, no one shall shoot us to silence, no one shall scare us out of being Norway.
As one Youtube one commenter put it, it’s “how you run a country humanely.” His comments are all the more striking given Stoltenberg’s implacable ordinariness, his utter lack of stage presence and rhetorical flourish on this occasion.
However another of his comments “our answer is more democracy” raises questions. More democracy? Why? Have they been holding back? Will they respond with more voter registration drives? Let’s hope it was a crummy translation.
Postscript on 7/24: Parden has written to offer a reasonable explanation: “‘Mer demokrati’ as was here translated into ‘more democracy,’ can (and in this instance probably should) be translated as ‘continued democracy.'”
Meanwhile, over at the Chicago Tribune, Artur Plotnik draws the line:
In the event the Cubs win the pennant some day, Arthur Plotnik has a string of superlatives at the ready. Ascendant. Dumbstriking. Festal. Gobsmacking. Both-barrels brain-blasting.
Notably absent from his list? Awesome.
Plotnik, more language fan than sports fan, is on a mission. He couldn’t care less whether the Cubs proceed to the World Series, frankly. He just wants to shake things up, word-wise. “I’m trying to destroy ‘awesome’ and have everyone saying ‘transcendent.’
“Our superlatives are so bleached out,” says Plotnik, author of Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (Viva Editions). “They have no force, no delight, no expressiveness—unless you add an intensifier, most of which are just as worn out: Really awesome.”
Good luck to him. He notes a curiosity I observed some time ago: “We have no problem with our exuberance of the negative, as you can find on every thread on every news story, where each poster outdoes the previous in snark and negativity,” he says.
According to his website: His recent Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style (Random House) is among the best-selling recent titles on language and writing. Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, called it “A must for every writer’s desk.”
“Outside the Box” The fastest way to earn a place on the cringe-worthy hall of shame is with corporate catchphrases. Last week, we singled out paradigm; this week “outside the box” earns our jeers. Where is this box? Why is it so difficult and noteworthy to emerge from it? As we all know, the term refers to clever thinking and new ideas. Wouldn’t it be nice if the words used to describe creativity weren’t so appallingly uncreative?
David ends with a pledge: “The internet is filled with sites devoted to identifying misuse of quotation marks, and apostrophes. A pair of self-styled grammar vigilantes has even been traversing the country in pursuit of grammar mistakes on signs. Identifying inappropriate, overused words and phrases is admittedly tougher, because they don’t violate any specific grammar rules. They do, however, violate our sensibilities. And as such, we’ll continue working to root them out.”
Stay tuned. Meanwhile, let’s end with a few moving words from Norway: