Sunday, December 27, 2020

Houston, we have ... an issue here.


Traffic, Buenos Aires

    Headline writers generally grab the shortest possible term. Storms "hit" rather than "arrive." Victims are "killed" rather than "murdered." But take a look at this headline from last night's on-line Trib.

     "Person of interest" is a way to say "suspect" at more than twice the length. There is a certain rational, of course—sometimes authorities investigate someone who turns out to be innocent. "Suspect" has darker connotations which "person of interest" does not yet have, yet, and labeling someone a "suspect" can tar them though guilt is not implied. Though the practice is decades old and those have been labeled "persons of interest"—such Richard Jewell, who was falsely-accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing—have argued that people see through the ploy.
     To me, it is cover-your-assery, not the noblest motive in professional journalism. But at least when dealing with humans, there is a justification. It's important not to injure the innocent. But I've noticed what I refer to as "euphemism creep" where the softer, more amorphous terms is used where no mitigation is actually necessary. Out of reflexive timidity. The example that sets my teeth on edge is the morning traffic report on WBBM radio. If a semi jackknifes on the Eisenhower, cutting off three lanes of traffic, it creates "an issue." As does every other delay that in a less-enlightened time would be called "a problem" on the highways. Sometimes the i-word is deployed three or four times in a brief report. 
     Now, I can see how you don't want your kid's teacher to say he has a problem with anything. And you wouldn't want to risk having a problem child. "Problem" is like "suspect," a malign term. "What is your problem?"
     But how does this translate to traffic snarls? Clogged highways don't have feelings. Nobody at IDOT will feel bad if there is a problem on the Dan Ryan. No trucker is going to cry himself to sleep because the radio reporter said his breakdown on the side of the Kennedy caused a problem with gapers. 
     The trouble is that we train ourselves to hold back the dogs in one area, and it bleeds into the others. Thus language is dulled, and made more confusing, and reporters train themselves to err on the side of caution. So, for instance, when the president started lying continually, it took parts of the media a shamefully long time to use the word "lie." That's a problem.


  1. Ever since I read 1984 I've been interested in usage. Orwell understood the power of language to shape human behavior.
    Sorry, that added nothing. Just an observation.

    1. Actually you did add something... a concise description of Neil’s column.
      I added nothing except a couple of compliments.

  2. I hope it's not insensitive of me to mention this while a deadly pandemic is raging, but an example of "euphemism creep" that sort of bugs me is replacing "dead" and "died" with passed. Even saying, "He passed away" is apparently now too harsh a reference to the finality of it. I can understand using the softer language when talking to someone who has lost a loved one, but using it for instance to write, "150 years since his passing we finally have..." is simply euphemism creep.

  3. It's hard walking on eggshells all the time, but most people seem to prefer measured words.

  4. The British upper crust-and probably middle crust-regards euphemisms, particularly those for death ("Grandmama didn't' pass away dear, she died.") an American verbal vice. Illustrated by a no doubt apocryphal encounter between an American and British veteran, allies in WW II.

    American: "Good to see you Colonel. I was sorry to hear you buried your wife."

    Brit: "Had to. Dead y'know."


  5. The latest on the Nashville bomber is that he had a grudge against 5G & thought it was messing with people's minds.
    More bullshit form social media!

  6. Yeah, Mr. S, it does seem like "problems" has been replaced with "issues"...especially by the psychotherapy crowd, which delights in saying: "He/she has issues." A euphemism for the more negative-sounding "problems"...and more politically correct, I suppose.

    And you used "gapers"...from which came "gapers' block"...a term that seems to be mostly limited to the Chicago area. In the lingo of the traffic reporters, a "gapers' block" is a euphemism for a tie-up created by motorists slowing down to gape at a traffic accident, or at a roadside diversion that distracts their attention.

    The term originated in 1958, with "Flying Officer Leonard Baldy" on WGN Radio. He was Chicago's first helicopter traffic reporter. Baldy was already well-known for being the first police officer in world history to use a radar gun, a device which he helped invent, to issue a speeding ticket. He also earned national recognition (and several major awards) for his aerial coverage during the Our Lady of Angels school fire, when his radio reports helped direct ambulance and fire crews to the scene.

    Sadly, Leonard Baldy's radio days only lasted for about eighteen months. He and his pilot were killed in 1960, when their helicopter lost a rotor blade and crashed. But Officer Baldy definitely left his mark on the language of Chicagoans. Columnist Mike Royko often commented that those causing a gapers' block should be cited for "mopery with intent to gawk."

  7. Check Youtube for a couple of excellent clips of George Carlin on euphemisms; it's worth the watch.

    My least favorite is probably "passed away". This is true: I heard or read someone referring to the children massacred at Sandy Hook as the children who passed away, or when the children passed away. I'm sure I yelled at the screen or page "you fucking moron, they were slaughtered, they didn't pass away".

    Also, I've learned to live with senior citizen, but "she's 74 years young" makes my teeth hurt.

    As euphemisms minimize the bad, we need a word for the maximizing of the pleasant; exaggeration doesn't seem to cut it. I'm so tired of amazing and awesome. No, the pizza you had last night was not awesome, your new shoes aren't amazing. When you give birth, climb Everest, walk on he moon, or view the Northern Lights, you get to use awesome or amazing. How about great, excellent, wonderful, terrific.

  8. Good column Neil I have no issues with it.

  9. Your column certainly pushed some folks’ buttons, probably because we are all sensitive to certain irksome words or phrases. Though I never really thought about it, when did a traffic jam become a traffic snarl? Thanks Grizz for quoting Royko. Love his turn of phrase, “mopery with intent to gawk.”

  10. I have an issue with traffic reports, not the choice of words but the rapid fire delivery as the 30 second report is allotted just 15 seconds of air. Whether trying to ignore the commercials or preparing for the semi to change lanes, the beginning of traffic reports always starts before I'm really listening and I never catch up. The issue may be on the Kennedy or the Edens as each item bleeds into the next and I may as well be going south on the Damn Ryan trying to get to Rockford.

  11. On the radio it's not just the traffic reporters. It seems like everyone who works radio hedges every statement . Kinda and sorta like are what really get me going . If it's a fact. State the fact .

    Too many people worry they will lose their job to be definitive. They always give themselves an out by saying in effect maybe everything


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