Monday, 11 August 2008

Fiske on cliche

Robert Fiske gets a second gold star in a fortnight for his latest article, about cliches and dead language - and the truth they are used to disguise - in the Indie:
Why do we use these dead words? There is a dictionary of clichés on my desktop in Beirut and I heartily recommend Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words by the Australian Don Watson.It contains one of my most hated clichés: core. As in "core issues", "core business" or "core learning outcomes". Rather like "key speakers" – of which I always refuse to be a member – these clichés attempt to smother idiocy with deep learning (or "core" learning, perhaps). What is this fascination with stale language? Let me rage. I hate all reports about wars where "the guns fall silent"; the retirement period for artillery being rather short, it's only a matter of time before the "clouds of war" begin to gather once more, when opponents are "pitted" against each other, when guns "soften up" their targets, and national governments complain about "terrorists" crossing (ergo: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan) "porous borders". In Iraq, we may experience a "spike" of violence, followed – of course – by a successful surge". (1)
And from the final paragraph:
On balance, I think we use clichés not because they are easy, but because they are a kind of addiction. We find it very difficult to give them up because they make life easier, less responsible, more synthetic, less real. (2)
Here he is talking about the comfort journalists find in them, but I think he can go further. THe are comfortng for readers, also. They aren't just an addiction, but an abdication of responsibility. Rather than facing up to the nasty reality of the world, we prefer to subside into cliches, preferring to believe in worlds where the guns can "fall silent" or where rhetoric about change is enough to decide an election.

I would ping Fisk, however, for his use of the term "wordsmiths" in the final paragraph. This is the sort of term only self-important duffers give themself. Fisk, as I've said before, dithers between being someone very important, and embracing dufferhood. He almost managed to keep the latter tendency under control for the whole column. But "wordsmith"? Come on!
1 - "Robert Fisk: Avoid cliché like the plague? Never," by Robert Fisk, published in The Independent, 9th of August, 2008. (
2 - ibid.

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