As a longtime devotee of the subtle nature of our remarkable English language, the language of Shakespeare, Churchill, Martin Luther King, even Barack Obama, it seems to me that our current secondary-school English curriculum is in dire need of a unit on the erosive effect of clichés on words in search of meaning.
I don’t mean just any clichés, the kind of thing that completely flummoxes people new to our language: “pearls of wisdom,” “fit as a fiddle,” “the writing is on the wall” — all terms in common use that cannot survive any literal translation to another language.
No, I’m talking about a curricular unit that examines how the prefabricated language of meaningless clichés helps politicians and CEOs camouflage what they really want to say — or are careful not say.
Experienced politicians and other speakers display a disconcerting comfort with an array of statements that, while they mean absolutely nothing, are presented in the guise of thoughtful but unable-to-be-fact-checked response: “We will improve our response to economic challenges,” “we will create good jobs going forward;” “we are working on a whole range of proposals;” and the masterful “we are looking at a comprehensive raft of measures.”
Speaking of political life rafts, there is inevitably mention of “the dire situation we inherited from the previous government” without any explanation as to what this is describing or how it will be remedied.
U.S. President Donald Trump, the living master, the legendary 10th-degree black belt of the mendacious cliché, feeds the media with stuff such as: “I don’t know, but that is what people are telling me.”
Trump also constantly speaks about something, anything, everything, as being “the greatest of all time.”
Not to be outdone and eager to get into the resounding-sounding rhetoric game, Canadian politicians are just as quick to utter meaningless inanities, especially if a platitude serves to avoid exposing ignorance of the topic at hand: “The fact of the matter is;” “and again, if I can just make this point,” alongside the ever-trendy “there is no instant solution, it’s going to take time, there are no easy answers.”
“I don’t answer hypothetical questions” is in a category all by itself, unsullied by any attempt to say anything of consequence and intended to expose the person asking the question to be an idiot who should know better.
All this, as Shakespeare had Hamlet describe it, rolls “trippingly off the tongue” without meaning a thing.
For the powerful and those seeking to represent themselves as close to the facades of power, the repetition of clichés, banalities and stock phrases can be a valuable tactic. They all serve to fortify rhetorical armour, deflecting any attack.
Talk of “hard-working families” and “long-term economic plans” and “what we’ve said is” are all but unassailable by anybody seeking actual meaning.
Inspirational masters of the English language such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw understood all this very well. They explained, in typically succinct fashion, why the need for any explanation of a complex issue often drives politicians and others backward into their anthology of throwaway catchphrases when faced with a microphone.
Wilde said: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” The author of The Importance of Being Earnest understood that truth and simplicity are usually the antithesis of political circumstances requiring explanations about what really happened.
Shaw, the Irish virtuoso of language, was even more acerbic when he chided politicians and other public speakers about their abuse of “the divine gift of articulate speech.”
“Don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon,” he advised.
Writing for the British publication The Independent, John Rentoul claimed that the clear winner when it came to political clichés is the classic “We have achieved a great deal, but there is still much to do,” which somehow manages to celebrate success and apologize for lack of it at the same time.
Rentoul lays part of the blame not on the speakers themselves, but on those who are employed to write speeches “full of turgid abstractions that are intended, perhaps unconsciously, to conceal the thinness of the content.”
So, to sum up, to recapitulate, as it were, let me at this stage be completely correct, absolutely open and totally honest because the message is very clear and very simple.
It is safe to say that what is needed and what we want to see any time soon, is a wide range of new and better options right across the board when it comes to political rhetoric.
The Canadian people expect (fill in the blank here).
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.