Monday morning I read a tip in a cheap communication-industry listicle: “Eschew jargon.” I made a note, “Eschew verbs that only appear in cheap communication-industry listicles.”
Monday afternoon I was in the middle of a long, cold Chicago run when my old buddy Tony Judge texted me, “Must I now say ‘data points’?” Reminding me of another time, this time of year, when Tony called me to say, “If you were a sleet storm, and somebody called you a ‘wintry mix,’ wouldn’t that just gall you?”
Tuesday my college daughter texted me to say, “Just found out that ‘rizz’ is actually short for charisma.” I gloated in reply that I have known that for several weeks now.
Anyway, I guess I’m known by now, as a word guy.
When I was the editorial director at a publishing company, I threw out résumés from people who said they wanted writing jobs because they “love words.” It was the writer’s equivalent of saying, “I’m a people person!” And any writer I was going to hire needed to know better than to say some shit like that.
My dad was a writer. When he was dying from pancreatic cancer in the winter of 2008, I wrote this:
Dad can’t write anymore because the pills make his head fuzzy. He wants me to come up with something to write back to “all these people,” a half-dozen family members and friends who have written him letters telling him what he’s meant to them.
I instinctively resist because I think writers can’t ghostwrite for writers, a notion he seems to think is a cop-out. “I asked David for help writing these letters,” I hear him telling my sister on the phone, “and he put on his hat and went out the door.”
So I try.
I tell him he’s already done his part in the lives of these letter writers, and all they really want to know is that he received their letters of appreciation. “Thank you for your fine letter,” I propose he writes on cards that I’ll address. “And I want you to know that it meant a great deal to me, and so do you.”
“But that’s what you’d write,” he says. “It’s not what I’d write.”
Between reruns of the above episode, words hold us together.
He remembers a fragment from a poem he once knew: “like a bubble it burst, all at once and nothing first.” We search the Internet in vain for the rest of the poem.
We make fun of the hospice nurse, who can’t pronounced a particular one-syllable Middletown street name correctly because of her southern accent.
At the dinner table, he stares at a photograph of himself in an airplane that has the numbers N1451R on the fuselage. “Five-One Ringo,” he says over and over and over and over because doing so makes him feel like a pilot again.
Reading Old Cars Weekly, he grumbles about the term “swapped out” as it’s used to refer to engines that are replaced with other engines. The “out” part, he says, is “totally unnecessary.” He says so with such increasing force that I’m compelled to remind him, defensively, that I didn’t invent the term. “Well, you need to do something about it!”
Words to us are things, every bit as much as airplanes and automobiles and oxycodone pills are things, and we hold onto them, one on each end, and we spin around together.
I don’t love words any more than the next guy. (Some, I hate. “Eschew,” as I mentioned. Not a big fan of “Wet AMD,” either, though “pneumococcal pneumonia” has some nice percussion, must as “mellifluous” has a nice melody.) I just take them more seriously, I reckon. Respect them a little more.
Because: “You can say what you want with a slide trombone,” as my old man used to say, “but with words, you’ve got to be careful.”
Postscript, from longtime broadcaster Al Michaels:
“Once, in the early ’80s, [Howard] Cosell, [Bob]Uecker and I were doing a game at the Astrodome. At one point in the late innings Cosell called for a bunt even though it was a situation in which no one would ever bunt. Uecker wanted to mildly chide Cosell but knew he had to be careful. ‘Well, Howard, I’m not really sure you want to bunt here,’ he said gently. He went on to explain why. Cosell responded, ‘Uecky, I get your point. But you don’t have to be so truculent. You do know what truculent means, don’t you?’
“Uecker didn’t miss a beat: ‘Of course, Howard. If you had a truck and I borrowed it, it would be a truck-you-lent.'”
As someone who has never worked full-time in a truly corporate environment, I can sense the fevered terrors within, but I experience them as shadows on cave walls. Or on my LinkedIn feed, as the case may be.
One of the unmistakable shivers I get comes when executives I don’t know well or at all, describe other executives I don’t know well or at all, in terms like “amazing,” “brilliant,” or “a wonderful human.”
It sounds magnanimous. It is megalomaniacal.
If you and I work and travel in the same circles and I pronounce some new member of our world smart or good, you may trust my assessment—because we share a common frame of reference for smartness and goodness.
So if I call a new acquaintance funny, say, here’s what happens in your brain: You instantly think of the funniest person we both know. It’s Fran, of course. I mean, there’s funny, and then there’s Fran funny, amiright? Unfortunately, we also share a common reference for the dullest drudge we know. (Jake, bless his heart.) Well, you know if I’m calling this newbie funny, that at least means the person is on the Fran side of our unofficial Fran-to-Jake Scale of Humorousness-to-Humorlessness.
Based on all our common experience together, you and I have developed similar unspoken but shared scales, for intelligence, wisdom, decency, competence, candor, ambition, and general amazingness—whatever qualities we value in human beings, whatever things we want our friends and colleagues to be. That is catty and judge-y and cliquish enough!
But if you and I don’t inhabit the same world, and thus don’t share these scales in common and you just walk up to me on the street and say you met someone who is brilliant or kind—well, now you’re just appointing yourself the arbiter of intelligence or human virtue. And that’s just about as presumptuous as it can be, as it assumes you must be near the pinnacle of virtuousness because it takes a rock star to anoint a rock star, right?
And whether they say it or think it, your audience can’t help but react to skeptically: “I’ll be the judge of that.” And worse, “Who do you think you are?”
This behavior isn’t limited to the corporate world, or to LinkedIn—I’ve certainly run across it at the Old Ebbitt Grill in D.C.—but it strikes me as the seeming sunny side of the kind of sociopathic corporate posturing that I’ve been fortunate enough, for most of my life, to avoid suffering—and committing!—firsthand.
As you, no doubt, are brilliant enough to appreciate.