Why We Shouldn't Worry About Killer Gerunds

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There's a kinder, gentler, more sensitive GOP in town.

In the newly demilitarized zone of political rhetoric, health care reform this week was transformed from "job killing" to "job crushing" and "job destroying," as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put it. There was trickle down spin, too. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor culled killing from his vocabulary, while lesser political lights opted for the becalming, almost anodyne imagery of a "government takeover" of the health care system leading to "disaster."
 
Naturally, the media coverage was all about how the Republicans had dropped the K-word in deference to the Arizona shooting -- an act which must make all the other people who got shot in the last year feel really special (or at least those who survived). In the calculus of political coverage, though, it was probably preferable to seeing stories on Republicans casually and callously using the K-word.

The GOP changes show that even belligerent neighbors can bury the hatchet when there's a common enemy. The circling of the linguistic wagons in the House can also be explained by the camaraderie of the Congress, uniting brothers and sisters in political arms -- sorry, limbs -- against loons with Glocks. But more than that, it can be explained by the painful spectacle of the media interrogating its own contribution to violent speech, which has set the frame, at least temporarily, for what counts as acceptable political discourse.

As Michael Calderone notes:

Several political journalists told The Cutline that they have recently paused before using some violent clichés in political writing -- whether "blasting," "targeting," "reloading," "taking aim," or coming "under fire." No one said the reason for hesitating is because they believe that Palin, CNN or the confrontational tenor of political discourse had influenced alleged gunman Jared Loughner. Instead, they say, putting such words under the spotlight has prompted them to refrain from using language that may be lazy, inappropriate or simply inaccurate when sizing up a political disagreement.

"I certainly wrote, then deleted 'takes aim' and 'takes a shot' a couple of times," said Politico's Ben Smith. "Once you're alerted to the terrible clichés and dead metaphors you're using, though, that's reason enough to stop."

But if all these adjectives or phrases are terrible clichés or dead metaphors then either their ubiquity or vapidity must render them harmless. If people take offense at hackneyed phrases it's because they're hackneyed -- and not because they are the linguistic equivalent of gelignite.

More to the point, since when have such adjectives -- or even such phrases as "taking aim" -- become clichés or dead metaphors? A quick trip through the Oxford English Dictionary shows a rich history of multiple deployments for these words, both literal and figurative.

"Blasting," for instance, originates in Old English and Old High German and means "to blow," either in the sense of  wind or breath; hence, Shakespeare's "a blasting and a scandalous breath" in "Measure for Measure." Target originally meant a defensive shield but morphed into something you shot at in the mid 18th century; by the middle of the 19th century, we have "targeting" in the sense of a person being the target of a newspaper; and by the 1960s and 70s, "targets" "targeted," and "targeting"  were as frequently used in economic policy as they were in nuclear deterrence. Similarly, "reloading" has been applied as much to shipping and cameras as to guns. And though "taking aim" has long had a martial connotation, for Shakespeare, the target could be a "faire Vestall" (from A Midsummer Night's Dream). Even "under fire," which originates at the end of the 16th century with the invention of the bullet, had acquired a figurative usage by the end of the 18th, thanks, in part, to Edmund Burke.

The real cliché might well be what the Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg diagnosed after 9/11 -- an outbreak of scrupulous literalism:

We're all watching our language these days, as we're suddenly made aware of how our speech is pervaded with metaphors of war and violence... New products have ceased 'to bomb,' dot-com companies no longer 'crash and burn,' and people are suddenly sheepish about yelling 'bloody murder' when their newspaper is late. 'You may catch some flak on that'; 'We'll see what happens after the dust clears' --I've never heard so many people end their sentences with 'so to speak.'

In the same way that one should probably avoid cracking jokes at a funeral, one should probably avoid cavalier language during any disaster or tragedy.

But this simply adds up to momentary good manners -- and not the end of laughter.

W.B. Yeats may have wondered, "Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?" but at least he was pointing to a literary movement devoted to inspiring Irish nationalist politics.

The casual journalistic phrasing of someone "blasting" someone else on Capitol Hill is so utterly trivial that to agonize over its martial implications screams of self-aggrandizement: The very nuance of my words can set a nation alight!

To which the only possible response is, "Shoot me now." Metaphorically, of course.

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Trevor Butterworth is a weekly columnist for The Daily and a contributor to the Financial Times.

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