What are Words For?

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

–George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Our public discourse today has disintegrated into a wretched cant, in which words are chosen and strung into chains of verbiage for every purpose but that of expressing a clear and straightforward thought. The aim is to signal; isolate; target; coerce; evade; pose; preen; villainize; dogpile; soothe; enrage; terrorize; placate; muddy; obfuscate; but never to plainly express or persuade, by appeal to another person’s good sense and will. We have arrived at a place where virtually all of our public conversations are performative, rather than constative; manipulative, rather than civil. [1]

Certainly, a number of my examples here are of cant that is spoken and written by those on the political Left, but this is not because the discourse on the Right is better. Quite the contrary, with the capture of the American Republican party by Trump and Trumpism, Right-wing writing and speech in the US has descended below the level of cant to a vulgar, misanthropic, inarticulate raving. If Left-wing ways of speaking have become a nauseating, Rococo mashup of the managerial, the therapeutic, and the postmodern, Right-wing discourse has turned into the discursive equivalent of professional wrestling: bellowing, flexing, threatening, crotch-thrusting, and every variety of juvenile machismo, all in the service of a mentality so atavistic that the capacity for understanding and employing metaphors required to develop and employ a cant [stale and empty though those metaphors may be] is well beyond reach. [2] All you can do with the current Right is grunt, shout, pound your chest and vote against them at every opportunity.

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‘Folks’/‘Folx’

Misrepresenting oneself and one’s feelings is one of the more common uses of cant today, and one popular form of it involves communicating a false air of solidarity with the Common Man and Woman, through the use of expressions like ‘Folks’ and recently, ‘Folx’.

Now, ‘folks’ was once just a homely way of saying “people,” and in the US had a regional bias, being used mainly in the South and the Lower Midwest and hardly at all in the Northeast or West Coast, unless one wanted to evoke a rural, “country” affect for some literary purpose.

Its current use, however, is predominantly among urban progressives and hipsters and academics [as well as cynical members of the ruling classes in the South and Lower Midwest]. The idea is to give the false impression that you are of – amongst; a part of; in solidarity with; an “ally” of – the simple, working people, for whom, in fact, you have complete contempt. It also can be used in a somewhat more oblique manner, where one falsely characterizes the objects of one’s speech as being of the common people, despite their demonstrably not being such. Hence the weird spectacle of people talking about purple-haired, septum-pierced, covered-in-tattoos hipsters, kinksters, and urbanites as if they were the Waltons.

‘Folx’ was invented to render ‘folks’ gender neutral so as to placate excitable gender-activists, despite the fact that ‘folks’ isn’t gendered. The reasons for this addition are unclear.

Boomer

The most prevalent use of cant today is to abruptly terminate conversations and debates, especially when one has no chance of winning or is already losing.

‘Baby Boomer’ used to denote those born to the WWII generation, in the 1940’s and 50’s. The expression was coined due to the large number of infants born, after American soldiers returned home from the war. Today, ‘Boomer’ [sans ‘Baby’] is used by younger millennials and Gen Z to indicate anyone older than them who holds an opposing view on anything they take to be important. Most have no idea what the original expression meant – or know much if any 20th century history – so it has become a kind of floating signifier, like the t-shirts they wear of bands they have never listened to and never will. Typically, it is used in “OK, Boomer,” which is meant to dismiss an older person and end any conversation one might be having with one. [I wrote about my own experience with the expression, here.]

Groomer/Grooming

An adjacent use of cant is to smear and slander your target with the hope of destroying his or her reputation, relationships, and livelihood.

Besides ablutionary uses which are mostly dated now, ‘Groom’ used to mean “preparing someone for a higher position or task in an organization,” but now is used almost exclusively to suggest that one’s political and other opponents are sex criminals. While sometimes used in this way on the Left, it is primarily a Right-wing instance of cant, and is meant to echo “OK, Boomer,” but with a far more malicious and destructive intent.

The only non-malevolent use of it today seems to be in the area of pet cosmetology.

Perfect!

A not-insignificant portion of contemporary cant is intended as a prophylactic against tension and conflict. ‘Perfect!’ – uttered chirpily or with a purring inflection – is used almost exclusively in retail and service, in response to trivial and mundane transactions, like ordering a coffee or giving your name for an order. Its purpose is to be ingratiating and to lubricate the transaction/service that is to come against any rough spots. As I discussed in a recent essay, customers and workers today are respectively pissed off and anxious, so these transactions and services are fraught.

The trouble with ‘Perfect!’ is that it can often misfire, evoking precisely the irritation it was meant to deter, as most people do not like being dealt with in an ingratiating manner. And if the subsequent transaction/service is terrible, having had ‘Perfect!’ chirped at you beforehand will just make your reaction angrier, rather than less so. [In this regard, it’s similar to telling someone how much you value his or her time, while you are busily wasting it.]

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I don’t know how long we are in for this sort of thing. Perhaps, if we can get past our current and catastrophic wave of cowardice, cynicism, envy, fecklessness, dysfunction, our bizarre lionization of ressentiment, and the collapse of any and every authority, people will return to more civil modes of speech and will endeavor to persuade one another, rather than use words and expressions as if they were bricks aimed at windows or poisons designed to maim or kill someone weeks later. But, maybe not. For one thing, it’s not clear how we get past these civilization-crippling trends — what is going to turn all the MAGA-Neanderthals normal, for example? — and even if we succeed in doing so, conducting so much of our interactions online and through avatars may just inevitably corrupt and debase our communications, whatever else we do. And as Orwell famously remarked, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” so the stupider and cruder we continue to write and talk, the stupider and cruder we’ll become.

Regardless, I can’t get this song out of my head, now.

Notes

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/austin-jl/#SpeeActsTrut

[2] If you think the “cock-thrusting” part is hyperbole, Tucker Carlson, the Right’s current favorite Fox News show host, created this documentary about “manliness” [as Tucker apparently conceives it], in which a testicle-tanning device is featured and recommended. It is not a parody.

34 thoughts on “What are Words For?

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  1. I am afraid we are in for a long haul of stupider and cruder. Ron DeSantis is a practitioner of the Trumpian communication style and approach to governance having watched him for about 5 years now as a resident of Florida. He is determined to be POTUS and he sure can. See this on him: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/13/magazine/ron-desantis.html

    Now, there is plenty of silly business coming out of the left as well although I was very happy reading this John McWhorter opinion piece today on “Trying To Prove You Are Not A Racist”:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/opinion/not-a-racist.html

    The tune that comes around for me that seems to describe where we are these days is this one:

  2. Excellent prose.

    Being a Boomer it rankles me to no end to be pigeonholed in a dismissive manner, as anyone with an ounce of self respect and independent thought, should be.

    Coincidentally, just the other day I Googled “Ok Boomer” to get a better grip on its meaning, before replying to some anonymous twit on YouTube. The only coherent definition proffered boiled down to it being a way of being antiestablishment.

    Of course the new generation will always express their disparaging cant at the old guard and the imperfect state of present affairs. We’ve all made fun of our parents and their clueless generation and I guess it’s now my turn in the barrel but, with a greater appreciation of those that came before.

    1. I understand “OK, boomer” as a shorthand response for a range of criticisms leveled at younger generations, such as “millennials have killed [insert cherished but outdated consumer good”], or “they wouldn’t need loan forgiveness if they ate less avocado toast”. “OK, Boomer” basically says “When you grew up, you could afford a house on a high school graduate’s salary, and if you went to college it cost you almost nothing. And your generation has spent decades consolidating and retaining wealth and power, killing wages and job security, destroying the environment for your own short-term gain, and leaving us to solve the problems you’ve created–but you won’t even retire and let us have the power to do so.”

      Maybe you can call this ‘cant’ in the sense that it is inside jargon–only other young people seem able *and willing* to understand it–so typically it’s a form of eye-rolling that is a bit more explicit in describing to other young people about why some complaint about them leveled by an older person is misguided. But I don’t see that it is discourse of quality much lower than complaints they are responding to.

      1. I agree with your take and it’s of course to be expected since the demise of traditional cultures when the young blended into the old without a stage called adolescence.

        But, I don’t see OK Boomer as being only a possibly well deserved defensive retort. It’s a holier than thou smug censorial dismissal of further dialogue that assumes a rote response from a clueless gestalt circa WWII. If you are of a certain age, by default and reflexive response, you deserve to be silenced, in fact not heard at all.

  3. I’ve been puzzling about the profligate use of ‘perfect’ for a couple of years. It’s clear that, no matter what I order at the cafe, it’ll be declared ‘perfect’. But I remain unsatisfied, since what I crave is that the barista declares my order not as perfect as that of those simpleton swillers in line before and after me, but as uniquely perfect.–The vocal performance that best sums up the contemporary mood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_DXJR5PV58&ab_channel=Downbythewater73

    1. “How is your dinner?”
      Since it wasn’t very warm and not quite what I ordered I respond “It’s alright”
      “Perfect!”
      “ahem it’s ok”
      “Perfect!”
      “Ok boomer”

  4. I try to write clearly, though some replies/responses to my blog comments show they were not understood, or worse, intentionally misunderstood. My rants against pop culture-speak are ignored, still, I refuse to agree that all things are awesome. Wait, what? does not = excuse me, or I beg your pardon. Orwell was right. His writing, and that of others foreshadowed current language shortcuts and trends.
    But, life is short. We best enjoy the good things. I think…

  5. “Our public discourse today has disintegrated into a wretched cant, in which words are chosen and strung into chains of verbiage for every purpose but that of expressing a clear and straightforward thought.”

    The words you single out are unthinkingly chosen for their (dimly grasped) performative or signalling power. I’d like to single out a word I believe to be unthinkingly chosen for its (dimly grasped) evasiveness, a word that, I submit, is the very emblem of our refusal to “express a clear and straightforward thought.” That word is “around.”

    I had the good fortune at university to study German under native speakers of it. Accomplished non-native speakers can be good teachers of a foreign language, but can lack the refined instincts that develop in those for whom it is their home language. And native speakers can nonetheless be poor teachers, if they are unable to fluently explain that about which they have such highly developed instincts. A skilled native-speaking teacher of a foreign language is thus a gift.

    So my ears perked when a teacher in graduate school counseled us to reflect upon the patterns of preposition use in the German language if we wanted insight into the unacknowledged Weltanschauung of the German speaker. Discoverable in the details about which prepositions are used when are the sediments of widely shared sensibilities of speakers past.

    For example, while an English speaker will say that one goes to an island, a German speaker will say that one goes onto an island. Inspiring the German usage is the undeniably endearing image of hopping from one stone and alighting on another.

    It’s not at all a stretch to look for similarly sedimented outlooks in the prepositions of English. This brings me to the preposition “around.” It has increasingly been deployed in situations where I would think the English speaker should feel the preposition “about” to be much more natural and fitting. I am thinking here of situations in which the author is compelled to deploy the phrase “discourse around . . .” or “discourse around the issue of . . . .”

    What I hear when someone refers to discourse “around” some topic, instead of “about” that topic is the following. Discourse “around” something has no commonly agreed-upon subject matter. It’s a swirl of “takes” on nothing in particular. The participants, if we call them that, are talking at one another or past one another, if they aren’t simply talking to draw attention to themselves. Very little work is done to settle on, or hear arguments in favor of and against candidates for, a commonly accepted description of the subject matter that the ‘discourse’ should be about. If discourse need only be “around” something, there’s little incentive to care about getting things right, since there’s no one thing any two participants are trying to get right. Discussion “around” something need only be aimed at eliciting a frisson from Us and outrage from Them.

  6. In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as the word of the year. It has been around for about a decade before then but the Oxford experts noticed it’s use began to skyrocket in 2016–for obvious reasons I think. And it is now commonly used in the term post-truth politics. I totally agree that the stupider and cruder we continue to write and talk, the stupider and cruder we’ll become. But I also think a substantial factor in our crude language drift is that so many assume there really is no truth. Hence civilized reasoned discourse is useless as a persuasive tool. So, and quite logically, appeals to emotion and various forms of political pressure up to and including violence are the only realistic ways to make one’s views prevail.

  7. “Ok boomer” doesn’t seem any stupider than my generation’s “Don’t trust anyone over 30” slogan. It’s a sign of immaturity in both cases, but young people are immature.

    Maybe you, Dan K., weren’t that way when you were young and more power to you for that, but I would bet that if you examine that attitude of many of your school-mates towards your high school teachers, you’ll find that they were seen as “old and out of it”.

    I taught college students in Chile in the 80’s, that is, your generation and I realized that, although I was in my 30’s, to many I was too old to be taken seriously as a human being.

    No one likes to be treated like that, but as I said above, young people are immature, lacking life experience and wisdom. Many young people don’t realize (in their gut) that they’ll get old too, that youth is ephemeral.

    As for “perfect”, it’s the kind of meaningless word that people use in situations where they feel that they have to say something, like “cool” or “ok”. I don’t see why anyone should be so bothered by its use.

    1. We didn’t give a shit about the adults, when we were teenagers. They did their shit and we did ours. We wanted as little to do with them as possible. But we weren’t stupid enough to think we had anything over them, as we understood how money and power work.

      If you read my OK, Boomer essay, I talk about this. OK, Boomer is equivalent to “I know you are, but what am I!” The difference is, we stopped talking that way when we were 7 or 8 years old. Not 40.

      1. True. Adults in the 60’s still exercised authority over their children and young people in general. If I had said that to my father, he would have cut my allowance for six months. If I had said that to a college professor, he would sent me to talk to the dean. Parents today or many parents fear punishing their kids.

          1. But this is exactly the problem with Boomers and possibly Gen X. They broke from traditions that had merit, media glorified the foolish excesses of baby boomer youth. This created problems for later generations.

          2. What are you going on about? I glorified nothing. I said it made no sense for progressive kids to shit on the Baby Boomers, given the Boomers’ own activism.

          3. I’m responding to you agreeing with Wallerstein who said we behave better because of how our parents/adults raised us. Boomers and Gen X are the parents/adults for Millinials and Gen Z. So we (boomers and Gen Z) should accept some responsibility.

    2. It reached the point that I became adverse to request anything from a waitperson, knowing the response would inevitably be “no problem”.

      1. I don’t understand why it bothers you that waitpeople answer you with stereotyped formulae.

        You’re probably like me and if you are, you’re interested in honest and authentic communication with others and it would not freak you out if the waitperson in question, instead of answering with a meaningless cliche, were to confess that he or she hates his or her job, that he or she needs to take a piss or that he or she has nothing against you as a person but has come to hate all customers.

        However, being an intelligent person, you realize that the waitperson works for tips
        and so avoids saying anything that he or she fears will freak out a normally insensitive customer, who does not give a shit about his or her existential issues and only wants to eat while they look at their phone.

        1. Nothing like all that, at all. It’s just that it became a talking point in some universal instruction booklet that magically swept across the restaurant industry.

          An occasional waiter or waitress randomly saying an innocuous catch phrase like that wouldn’t normally attract my attention but in my experience it reached an epidemic level that any request or thank you was responded by – no or not a problem.

          Not to be picky but why would bringing me a spoon, or my showing approval be construed as a problem to begin with? Perhaps I just expect a little originalism or not feel like I’m imposing an unreasonable request.
          Or, quite possibly, it’s just me.

          As far as desirable wait service, my expectations are quite Spartan. An amiable or neutral demeanor and a semblance of attentiveness. I always tip well commensurate with service and venue and not bashful with compliments when deserved.

          Being an accomplished waitperson is a professional skill and talent that I greatly respect and unfortunately becoming increasingly rare in my experience.

          1. I’m trying to figure this out.

            In Chile in the middle income “alternative” restaurants which I frequent, most of the waitpeople are young, “alternative”, middle-class and female. So I suspect that some of the stereotyped behavior may be due to the fact that they fear (perhaps rightly) that I’m a dirty old man and they want to avoid “human” contact with me. The male waitperson may see me as a potential gay dirty old man and thus adopt similar behavior.

            I then thought about taxi drivers (I don’t have a car) and they almost inevitably begin
            “real” conversations with me, generally about what goes in the streets. Taxi drivers are generally male, working class or lower middle class and they don’t expect a tip here, although they keep the change. I recall a female Uber driver that I had a few years ago and she told me her life story from a very feminist slant: I liked her so much that I tipped her. However, she was a woman who seemed not to be afraid of the streets or of male harassment and probably had a baseball bat under her seat, just in case.

            So I’d say that factors of gender, social class and generation all play a factor. It’s also important in how people react to me that while I was once an attractive middle class young man, I’m now a dirty old man, which is one of the human types most rejected by young people, for a series of reasons which a good psychoanalyst might
            elucidate.

          2. I waited tables for 15 years in different parts of the country. Also was a lowly dishwasher. I’d be curious what your experience in the job is?

            Terran’s point seemed both reasonable and obvious to me.

          3. Never waited on tables or washed dishes. I worked for maybe 6 months in an Orange Julius in New York. No tips there of course, but it’s facing an often aggressive public. Worked for a while in a Barnes and Noble in New York too, also involved dealing with customers.

            I’m just trying to put myself in the place of the wait-persons today, to see the world from their point of view. That’s a defect I have.

          4. In many cases a runner brings out the food. If your lucky the waitperson will come by in less than 15 minutes to see if everything came out correctly.

            I would hope that if someone takes on a job they would feel compelled and obliged to do it with the best of their ability. Especially when the bulk of their income is tip based.

            I’m really not interested in their personal lives and psychology. Nothing is less appetizing to mood or palate than being waited on by someone with a depressed, disinterested or surly demeanor.

            On a lighter note, being of a certain age myself, I will forego traveling to Chile, or, if the opportunity did present itself, I would eschew eating out for fear of being arrested or deported as a sexual predator;). Very strange.

          5. I’ve been a food runner too. And an expediter. And a Host. I’ve done almost every job in a restaurant except for cook. That I did on my own as a caterer.

            I know a thing or two about the industry, at both the lower and mid range levels. I’ve never worked fine dining.

  8. Even in philosophy distortion of language is a factor. All philosophy papers use ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun. It’s senseless and only monolinguals would think it a good idea. Actress seems to be becoming quaint, like aviatrix. Why? Tom Cruise sera La vedette, sacrebleu.

  9. I read this and essay on OK Boomer you linked to. Here are a few thoughts.

    I agree that we (by “we” I mean both my generation, Gen X, and Boomers) are the ones that raised these kids and so we should consider closely whether we are failing them by setting them up for failure. I also care about the younger generation and I am concerned that they think they are impervious to difficulties that have plagued most people through most of time.

    Do you think students feel it would be appropriate to engage in sporting debate that would challenge what they think their teachers believe? I went to an excellent high school and the teachers always welcomed discussion and debate. When I was in college everyone knew you might as well just insist on a bad grade if you did that with most English teachers. (I am not trying to bash English teachers generally it was just the case at my own small liberal arts college that English teachers were there to indoctrinate their bad ideas. )

    But in philosophy teachers were different. Even if we reached contradictory positions we were comrades just because we tried to engage the topic. That you were interested and willing to try to learn the arguments and advance the topic was your ticket to being liked and appreciated. I don’t know how much that is the case anymore. But from what I hear I am not surprised that students might be inclined not to argue and just take the attitude “ok boomer” I’m not gonna argue just give me an A.

    I find it interesting that you want to glorify the baby boomers/me generation. I think that generation was ok. But I don’t think they were especially good either. I don’t see many of the great civil rights leaders being born after 1945.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civil_rights_leaders#List
    Because the boomers were so big marketing catered to them and made them think they were the center of the world so it is not surprising they became the “me generation.” I don’t fault them for that any generation would be focused on themselves if the world focused on them.

    My own generation (gen x) is skipped over politically and culturally since the baby boomers and their children the millennials have a huge vote. Just the other day I was looking at social security and sure enough there are more favorable rules for people born before 1954 than those born after. No surprise, democracy in action.

    I think the baby boomers and their children have a very authoritarian mindset. They think anyone that doesn’t act like them are wrong. They think they figured it all out and did it right. And the commercial world from movies, media and entertainment, to advertisements are not inclined to lose money disagreeing with them. You realize the money that was to be made glorifying being in the counter culture as a young adult in the late 60s and seventies? You believe the hype?

    I remember when I was a young lawyer a baby boomer asking in a disdainful way why my generation wasn’t out protesting like he did when he was younger. I was sort of surprised by the question. After all he was not out protesting anymore either. So naturally I thought he, like me, realized many protests were foolish. But this guy wanted “yes men” and so why argue away a raise or promotion? So as someone who grew up in a generation outside the baby boomers and millennials oversized spotlight I can understand a bit the “ok boomer” motto. Boomers often want to dictate not debate. Other generations will just enjoy their own life their own way.

    I don’t mean this to be too disparaging as the boomers are fine and not much worse than other generations. Boomers are not all full of themselves but there was a reason why they got the name the “me generation.”

      1. Ok sorry I misunderstood.

        Your essay really does explain Gen X as I understand it as well.

        You say:

        “These are as descriptive of my generation as they are of Didion’s. And it makes perfect sense that they would be. The Silent Generation are our parents, just as the Baby Boomers are the parents of the Millennials. And as the Millennials have inherited their instinct for social-justice oriented, “fix the world” activism from their parents, so those of us who belong to Generation X inherited our inclination towards moral and political ambivalence from ours.”

        I have thought the same, and therefore I am hopeful of Gen Z – even though they are very different. My kids also seem “Distrustful of political highs” they see in millennials. I would add they distrust religious/anti-religious highs as well. They see the spectacular spills walking on stilts can bring about, and choose a more grounded gait. Baby Boomers and Millennials? I just try to keep a sense of humor.

        But in the spirit of being a humble gen Xer I will happily point out a large number of great musicians were baby boomers.

      2. I thought I posted a response to this but perhaps it didn’t go through.

        In short, great essay. I think you nailed it when it comes to different generations. I hope Gen Z takes after Gen X.

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