Pass me the lexical Novocain

Politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys, generals and corporate spokespeople cherish the bland turn of phrase, the reassuring clichés that are the equivalent of the beat cop’s refrain: “move along, folks, nothing to see here.”  Indeed we would argue that there is a place for anodyne in reducing the heat when things have gone awry.  However, a cliché over-used becomes a caricature and focuses attention on itself in precisely the wrong way.  We’ll get in a moment to a recent example from Ohio State University that brings this subject to mind, but in the spirit of year-end resolutions, this is a plea for some new language in the corporate lexicon.

Some of the hoariest clichés have already been thoroughly disassembled and, to be fair, companies have largely abandoned the cloying warmth of sending fired executives to “explore new career opportunities” or “spend more time with their families.”  In these traumatic and litigious times, we have seen so many settlements that there are a couple of phrases which are now past their sell-by date.  Companies who settle with the government because they know or suspect that a full-blown trial could be even worse now need to stop saying the settlement is  designed to “eliminate the expense and distraction of protracted litigation.”  Surely, a shriveled fig leaf that covers less and less.  The opposite strategy, of course, is to “vigorously defend ourselves against these baseless allegations” which now means only that we are so guilty we’ll have to throw everything at this one to see if something sticks.

Which brings me to Ohio State, which has apparently been the victim of a security breach exposing 760,000 personal records to potential criminals.  As The New York Times reports today, the university is offering a year’s free credit protection to anyone whose name was on the affected server.  It is doing so, not because it believes anyone is at risk but “out of an abundance of caution.”  Not so they don’t get sued, mind you, but “out of an abundance of caution.”  It is as if corporate spokesmanship was a kind of kabuki theatre in which ritual gesture and phrasing has healing power.  How else can we explain that this odd, awkward, bumbling phrase elicits 1.41 million hits on Google?  What’s wrong with “just in case” or “to reassure people.”  We would argue that this and similar clichés have crossed over into caricature and now focus more not less attention on the problems under discussion.

We’re reminded of an analogous process from the history of Britain’s satirical magazine, Private Eye, which was routinely sued for libel in the 1970s by politicians and businessmen whom it alleged on little evidence were engaged in illicit affairs or observed drunk in public.  They cannily invented two clichés to signal this to its readers without getting sued.  Politicians were henceforth “seen discussing Ugandan affairs” when with their mistresses and “tired and emotional” when slurring their words.

So in this season of so many clichés, mostly good ones, let’s re-dedicate ourselves to inventing some new ones.  It is time to restore our lexical Novocain to its full strength.


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