Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Put it this way . . .

Posted By on 01.02.08 at 10:21 AM

A cliche is a figure of speech you get by without. If you use it yourself it’s vernacular.

At the end of every year the rhetoricians are heard from, and I was troubled to see it is what it is show up in a couple discussions about phrases it was time to let be. According to an Associated Press report carried in the Tribune, it was just chosen by Lake Superior State University for its annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. But then so was waterboarding. The AP says the LSSU choices are taken seriously enough that a previous year’s were posted on an Arizona Supreme Court bulletin board as language for attorneys to avoid. The U.S. Supreme Court faces a landmark ruling concerning habeas corpus and Guantanamo, and if the justices banished waterboarding from the discussion they’d be sneered off the bench.

Even if it is what it is says nothing at all (and I don’t think it does), it says it in a nicely Zen-like way. Consider the case made against it by columnist Rem Rieder in the December/January American Journalism Review. Rieder’s theme is the need for frank talk in hard times; he scorns publishers who order cutbacks and promise inanely that their papers will "do more with less." He rightly salutes a Spokane editor who warned his staff that cuts were coming and told them bluntly, "Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me. There is no way to make this pig look like anything other than a pig.”"

But then Rieder digresses. "While we’re banning expressions, how about adding 'It is what it is' to the dustbin? Is it just me or is this suddenly ubiquitous catchphase truly annoying? First of all, what does it even mean? Are there lots of people out there who think it is what it's not? Second, it carries the connotation that we're stuck with the status quo, no matter how melancholy, and nothing can be done about it."

Not true. It simply means "a pig is a pig." Rieder has missed his own point.

Whatever. (Most nominated word for LSSU’s 1997 list. Yet still useful for making abrupt transitions.) The word of the year for 2007, as chosen by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is locavore. It wouldn’t be my choice. I propose the fast-finishing transformational. Here’s Thomas Friedman in the New York Times on December 19: "I still don’t know what Bali was about, but I do know that it was incremental, not transformational--and incrementalism, when it comes to clean energy, is just a hobby." Here’s Mary Schmich in the Tribune on December 2: "Sixteen. It’s a transformational age. . . . Between the ages of 16 and 19, moral codes are fixed and futures are charted."

I began seeing transformational everywhere after Andrew Sullivan sensitized me to it with his fine essay in the December Atlantic on Barack Obama. Sullivan sees Obama’s faults acutely, but he supports him for president because, in Sullivan's view, Obama's candidacy is "potentially transformational." Sullivan thinks America is in dire need of transformation, and my guess is that in their bones most Americans agree with him. No American under 30 has lived through a presidential election without a Bush or Clinton on the ballot.


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