Innocent Bystander: Plastic English

Plastic English by L. E. Sissman

A couple of us old foreign-car nuts, who remember the long-gone era of aromatic leather interiors and burlwalnut facias—dashboards to you— with some respect for the craftsmanship they implied, broke into recent titters and guffaws when we read the results of a Road & Track owners’ survey in which the partisans of a certain Japanese make agreed that its best features included the interior—a miracle of mass-produced plastic, undoubtedly untouched by human hands. This led us to further not-sorisible conjectures on the rising tolerance, even appetite, for plastic in all our artifacts and ways. In the elevator and the supermarket and the airport waiting room, we are lulled and stupefied by plastic music; on the Interstates, we ingest plastic food; when we read a magazine or newspaper or watch TV, a flood of plastic English assaults our eyes and ears.

I am using “plastic” in an exact sense here; let me quote from a dictionary definition of the word written some years before the introduction of what we now call plastic itself: “plastic, adj. ... 6. Physics. Capable of being deformed continuously and permanently in any direction without rupture, under a stress exceeding the yield value.” Under the stress of an unholy impulsion to power and wealth, far exceeding the yield value in humanitarian terms, the pace and tone and environment of our life, and especially the language we speak and read, have suffered a sea change into something cheap and strange, something alien, something continuously and permanently deformed, something, in fact, plastic.

There is not a single heathen tongue; rather, there are many, a ba-

bel of multicolored plastic languages under the general rubric we call English. They are the jargons, or argots, of many disciplines, if I may use the noble word “discipline” in such a laughably antithetical way: science, scholarship, advertising, journalism, politics, and many more. They have one thing in common, though; all of these debased and isolable forms of the mother tongue attempt to paper over an unpalatable truth and/or to advance the career of the speaker (or the issue, cause, or product he is agent for) by a kind of verbal sleight of hand, a one-upmanship of which the reader or listener is victim.

I am not in the least embarrassed that this jeremiad over the imminent dissolution of the language has had many earlier prophets than myself; specifically, I am proud to revive a protest made so tellingly, some twenty-six years ago, by George Orwell in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell concerned himself with the “swindles and perversions” of the language of his time on the grounds that imprecision of thought leads to sloppy, selfindulgent language, which leads in turn to even sloppier, lazier thinking; to make his point, he adduced several horrible examples of writing current in the England of 1946. I’d like to do the same, citing some samples from the America of 1972 and adding notes on their pathology.

1.“A Toast to a New Breed of Brides. Elegantly individual. Stark with savvy. Inclined toward the sublime simplicity of an exciting new designer. Michele Piccione of Rome. Above—a bow’d belle of wool and silk . . . beyond—a marvelous wool mood-maker with soft wedding hood. Lean, lovely ideas, both. . . .”

The first thought is, how can they, in this day and age? But this emetic Bergdorf’s ad, in the Sunday New York Times, is perfectly representative of thousands of its kind, running daily and weekly hairless cheek by bloody jowl with reports from My Lai, Attica. Jackson State, Watts, and the streets a few blocks to the north of Bergdorf’s. Surely no member of that “new breed of brides” is so anchoritic as to swirl through life like a deb of the twenties? But, ah: light dawns. This particular ad is addressed to their poor, rich mothers, still hoping for a swatch of grace and harmless flummery in a darkening hour of muggings in tower elevators. That doesn’t, however, explicate all the other sick, tired fashion ads aimed at their dancing daughters. Is there a conspiracy between fashion copywriters and fashion consumers to shut out the rest of the menacing world? Perhaps; much plastic English is on the secret service of her majesty, nepenthe.

2. “. . . Monod is constrained to use the word ‘teleonomy,’ which stands for living ‘objects endowed with a purpose or project,’ and which includes the genetic replication of such purpose. Yet in no way is this to be confused with ‘teleology’ à la Aristotle, or with final causation, and certainly not with ‘animism,’ which is the projection of organic teleonomy into the universe itself. This is the author’s here noire, and his stable extends from Plato through Leibniz and Hegel, down to dialectical materialism. . . .”

An animistic bête noire in a stable? A la Aristotle? This short chunk from a brief review of Monod’s Chance and Necessity in the Antioch Review is a fair example, not in the least atypical, of the state of the art of scholarly prose, complete with the warts of terminological jugglery, foreign phrases sprinkled ad libitum, as here, and impacted metaphor. While it does not begin to compare with Orwell’s superb example of same from the works of Harold Laski, it is sufficient unto the day. The purpose, clearly, is to anoint the author as an academic mensch.

3. “Just finished ‘Life Story.’ It really was a hit to my head. You know, it was really refreshing and cosmic. I was a pancake until last year, but guess I missed my chance to tell you about it. . . .”

So a recent letter to the editors of Rolling Stone. Two “really”s and one “you know.” Par for the course. In an age of lowered barriers, the ultimate creative experience—literary, physical, spiritual—is open to all those who can afford the dues: the price of a rock album and a pledge of allegiance to the lockstep argot of the young. Yet they are—and I’m not kidding—the hope of the world, and if they ever learn to individuate themselves and their language they may be quite unstoppable.

4. “Over the past 50 years, the Mafia has been convulsed by eight major gang wars, most of them wrenching it further into the twentieth century.

“Each war was set off by personal ambitions and jealousies. Each one shook the organization to its foundations and spilled gallons of blood unnecessarily. But in a historical perspective, each war can be seen as a confrontation between the old order and the new, the old-timers and the Young Turks.”

This introit from the recent New York Magazine series by Nicholas Gage on the Mafia raises all sorts of yellowing ghosts. The American Weekly. The Daily Graphic. James Wechsler’s cephalically muscular recreations of the twenties. Walter Winchell’s voice-over introductions to The Untouchables. Apparently color—the color of blood—laced with fancyisms like “historical perspective” and action words like “convulsed” and “wrenching” and Newspeakisms like “confrontation” may be folded together into a reasonable facsimile of the New Journalism (sic). A remarkable recycling of an apparently nonbiodegradable, to use another nonce word, plastic.

5. “We look on the decision-making process as a very important component of the overall deterrence package.”

The speaker is Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The sentence is not really meaningless; freely translated, that is, stripped of its soothing coating of interchangeable euphemisms—what Orwell called “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”—it means, as Robert Sherrill wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine, “that, while everyone else from New York to San Diego may be wiped out en masse, the enemy would tremble to know that Washington’s bureaucrats and politicians had survived and were making decisions just as well as always.”

Other officialese, of course, is intended to mean just nothing; Melvin Laird is sardonically saluted by Sherrill in the same article for his adroitly unresponsive answers to the questions of congressional committees. And some public language is intended to turn black into white, hey presto!, before the astonished voter’s eves. Thus Senator Hugh Scott’s recent call for the Nobel Peace Prize for President Nixon, which Tom Wicker nominated for the “Orwell Award.” on the grounds that Scott “had come about as close as anyone could to the ideal Newspeak formulation. ‘War is Peace.’ ”

6. “In North Vietnam, in the period from 1954 to 1956 ... a minimum of 500,000 were murdered, assassinated ... in the event that the United States followed the course of action recommended by some of those who have voted for the socalled end-the-war resolution in the Senate ... it would mean that there would be visited upon South Vietnam the same atrocities that were visited upon North Vietnam, with perhaps at least one million marked for assassination. . . . That would be the height of immorality to impose on the 17 million people of South Vietnam a Communist government with the bloodbath that would follow. . . Thus President Nixon in a recent press conference.

Later, in the same conference: “This question I noticed has been reflected on by some lower-level officials in the Government, but not because Secretary Rogers and I have talked about this matter and Dr. Kissinger and I, not by us.”

It’s nice to watch a real master at work. In the first set of quotations President Nixon is, as Tom Wicker has said, grossly inflating the number of casualties in North Vietnam in 1954-1956, a figure usually set at 10,000 to 15.000 and never higher than 50,000, in order to set the stage for what Wicker called the President’s “nearly singlehanded discovery of the coming bloodbath” involving the wildly speculative figure of a million South Vietnamese. This in the context of a conference in which he accused the Secretary-General of the United Nations of “a hypocritical double standard” on the subject of the bombing of the dikes.

In the second quotation Mr. Nixon is simply retreating into what Oliver Jensen once happily dubbed Eisenhowese: an inscrutably inarticulate utterance in public.

This gross manufacture of plastic English for self-seeking ends in high places is especially worrying because it implies that a speaker who, like the cuttlefish, shrouds himself in inky opacities has no real knowledge of his whereabouts, and, lost in the stylish practice of duplicities, can no longer distinguish a real right from a real wrong. But, naggingly, this plastic deformation of language for selfish purposes is pandemic now: it pops up in the slovenly shortcuts of all kinds of lazy, self-indulgent writing—“Yes, ma’am,” with its needful pause and broadening apostrophe, is increasingly rendered as the nuanceless, and downright wrong, “Yes mam.”

All sorts of special pleaders, however just their cause, begin to sound, in the ripeness and density of their trite political catchphrases, like American Communists of the thirties. Women’s Liberation, which now prefers to be called “the movement,” for one, has turned its useful dialogue with its exploiters into a useless monologue by settling for such thoughtless formulas as “male chauvinist.” On another front, such movements distort and corrupt further the language already savaged by the Establishment politicians when they conspire to eliminate the innocuous, and correct, locution, “Everyone knows he has to decide for himself,” and to substitute the odious Newspeakism “chairperson” for the sufficiently separate—and equal—“chairman” and “chairwoman.”

A plague on plastic prefab houses, and on the widespread debasement of our only valid (there’s a nonce word; even in an article like this, I can’t eliminate them all) tool for change: independent thought, expressed in individual language. For what does it profit a man if he gains a whole new world, but loses the soul of his moral authority: his ideas and the fragile, precious, idiosyncratic words he clothes them in?