Isn’t that a great headline?
Stan Dubinsky sends out a lot of cool stuff to read via e-mail. You should ask to be on his list — if you’ve got time to read the stuff. I don’t really, but I do tend to glance at the headlines to see if anything draws me in (which, Journalism 101 here, is what headlines are for). And “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness” definitely did the job.
And the piece was worth reading. An excerpt:
What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
The decline and fall of American English, and stuff
I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.
Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English.
My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.
Then came 1985….
Undergraduates… seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness….
We all note, and many of us decry, what social media have done to (and for; there’s an upside as well) effective and elegant use of language. But I found this piece interesting because it went far beyond that, and identified an insidious enemy not only to communication, but to clear thought as well.
That enemy is Vagueness.