Politicians say a lot but often fail to tell us what they really mean
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
Two guys walk into a bar. Except one of them isn’t a guy. She’s a woman. Or let’s say they walk into a restaurant, or a cell phone store, or their favorite combination vegan pierogie outlet and cigar bar. Doesn’t matter. Wherever they should roam, they are both likely to be greeted by the male slang term “guys,” which has become a gender-neutral greeting misused daily, weekly, hourly.
Besides the word “guys” being overly familiar, it just happens to be, in 50 percent of all cases, the wrong word to use. If you are looking at someone and referring to them as a guy, you should imagine that you would not be startled to see them growing a beard. That’s what guys do.
Now I know this doesn’t matter as much as getting our young people home from Iraq or figuring out how to pay for a sound education for all students. But it should matter to those who care about language and believe that how we say things says something about, like, who we are. It matters most when we are talking of important social and political issues, when powerful people use words to hide rather than clarify their intentions.But you might wonder: If we insist on clarity in our own quotidian interactions, is it possible that this might trickle up and raise the bar for the politicians clamoring for our attention? By respecting the meaning of the words we employ, can we not hope to elicit greater respect from the chattering class, by letting them know that we won’t settle for sound bytes and imprecise answers to serious questions? Isn’t it worth a try, guys? Adds nothing to the deficit, won’t raise taxes, and it is free of trans fats.
We should have expected this debasement of the language to become our national pastime. Ever since the word “word” stopped meaning “word,” and instead became a substitute for an oath of honesty, the rest of the vocabulary was fated to slide into one giant slushie. This week, however, I have to make one final attempt to revive respect for attaching meaning to words, and to challenge that slide.
Chris Rock hilariously once put it, “I don’t know what you’re sayin’ coz you ain’t sayin’ nothin’ when you’re saying, ‘You know what I’m sayin’.” He was picking on the overuse of the term “you know what I’m sayin’” as a way to end a sentence, and I do know just what he was saying.
A few weeks ago David Rubin, in a Post-Standard essay, bravely attempted to take politicians to task for using the term “obviously” to introduce a point that was clearly anything but obvious. I applaud Rubin, I see his point, and I raise him the overused and much abused term “again.”
It has become standard procedure for politicians to begin a response to a question by: 1. repeating the name of the interviewer to show how folksy he or she can be, and 2. saying “again.” Let me repeat: The term “again” implies that you are repeating something you have already said. However, if you listen to politicians today, you’ll hear them using it again and again to introduce a point. (This is a bipartisan violation, as likely to emanate from the mouth of Pelosi as from the mouth of Perry.) Nothing against the voices in your head, ladies and gentlemen, but just because you have been thinking about something endlessly doesn’t mean that you have already referred it in the present conversation. Do I need to repeat myself?
Finally, guys, it is time to ask politicians to stop telling us “what the American people want.” You can’t go more than 10 minutes into one of the Republican debates without hearing someone tell us “what the American people want.” You can’t listen to Harry Reid for more than 30 seconds without hearing the same thing. Do us a favor, guys, and Ms. Bachmann, too: Don’t hide behind this not-so-clever phrase. We already know what we want. Just tell us what you plan to do. Those are words we’d like to hear.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him edgriffin@twcny. rr.com