Essays by Mary Carroll Nelson

Words in Their Time

We don’t hear the words "at this point in time" anymore, but during the Vietnam War the talking heads, chiefly Dan Rather, used it over and over again. Since my husband Ed was in Vietnam, I was glued to the news, listening to the lugubrious voice of Rather, who seemed to seek out death, intoning this phrase.

My fate is to hear and record words in my inner ear, and far later, remember them as keys to the past. In my last years of high school, my sister was in college. From her, I would hear the buzz words of the older set and then use them. A big coup was to say "brack" about anything disgusting or unpleasant. It soon made its way into usage among my friends, too.

When my own children were of similar ages, the dreadful "you know" or "ya know" became epidemic, and that is a crutch that continues to the present. If a pause is needed in the midst of a statement, roll out "You know," and it gives time to think of the rest of the sentence…or it proves there is no further thought.

We have been through a period of "all things considered," not just from the PBS series, but as a phrase that seemed to add pomposity to the speaker’s comments.

Today, as we struggle to maintain a grip on the civilization we are privileged to have inherited, we are dealing with new strings of words that fill the same purpose as "you know." Listen for the continuous repetition of "that being said," or its variation "having said that," ad nauseam. It appears in print as well. Speaking of "as well," on every local weather broadcast, the talking head leans heavily on these two words in his/her rapidly delivered report while sweeping a hand across the map, i.e., "strong winds in the Southeast, as well." By the end of the broadcast, it has been used up to ten times.

Other fads in recent days include "move on," not as in Moveon.org but in summarizing something dire, a commentator falls back on the need to move on, get past it, let it go. Related to this idea is the repeated use of "closure." We have to bring it to closure, have closure, stop the pain, make it go away; often the word is used in a context that is clearly not ever going to be closed, such as the death of a loved one or a catastrophe. We don’t close, we grieve. We are not wrong to remember, it is a normal human imperative.

In other arenas, there are buzz phrases, too. How about "the bottom line?" By implication, the only number that counts is the total, and the hope is to make it smaller. But, in our situation, the bottom line grows exponentially and our hopes are not fulfilled. So we suffer from another word in use entirely too often, which is "uncertainty." When, pray tell, was there ever certainty? It is a myth.

On both sides of the Congressional aisle, other concepts, constantly reiterated, are also myths. Democrats stress "fairness," which has come to mean everyone is in the same boat, or should be if the government can fix it that way. Republicans talk about "equal opportunity," by which they mean we do not need a net provided by the government so much as a curtailing of governmental interference. This is expected to lead to a population of achieving, independent people who only need a chance. Some truth is behind every myth, but no single talking point encapsulates truth.

As a country, we subscribe to a "free market," while in actuality there is nothing free about the subsidized, tariff–laden, super–controlled economy that we are enduring at the present time. Our market is a patchwork of special conditions for special interest groups, and, by the way, "special interest groups" is another catch–phrase picking up steam in our era.

Lately, with politics invading our airwaves, the question and answer format is in daily use on all channels. An "expert" is on hand, or a talking head, and the emcee asks a question. As often as not, the reply begins, "Well, I mean," or just "Well." Some standouts do not fall into this easy trap, such as Charles Krauthammer who begins his statement with a complete thought and continues with clear syntax until he is finished. Admirable, but rare.

Until later, you know, the bottom line is, having said that, I will continue to listen for more examples that can drive you crazy if you begin to really hear them.

September, 2011

Mary Carroll Nelson

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What Lies Beyond? The Art of Layering Art Today, Art History Tomorrow
Can We Believe In Holism and Be a Partisan Too? Words in Their Time Synchronicity and Holism
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