“Rhetoric” on the ground
Among my least favourite seasons is the season of year-end lists. And the year-end lists I like least are the lists of words to be retired from the language, obnoxious expressions, and so on.
“On the ground,” a couple of years back, is a good example. This expression was all the rage for a while, among journalists telling us what was going on in Iraq. Commanders “on the ground” said this, or the situation looked different “on the ground,” or whatever. It was everywhere.
Self-appointed guardians of the language singled this one out on their year end lists, with such penetrating questions as “where else would one be? In the air?”
The problem with buzzwords is not simply overuse; it’s overuse by people who don’t really know what they mean. Buzzwords don’t start out empty and meaningless. They usually have specific, concrete meanings; then they get adopted by people who don’t quite get them, weakened, diluted, neutered. And finally, they get “retired” by the aforementioned language guardians.
“On the ground” began life with a specific, useful meaning. In the military, and in any field that relies heavily on information gleaned from maps, you have the information you get from the map, and “the ground truth,” that is, the information you get from the terrain itself. Your map may imply that, from the top of that slope, you can see the intersection, but the ground truth may be otherwise. And that’s a critical distinction, obviously, if you’re setting up an observation post.
When an officer talks about the situation on the ground, he isn’t just spouting excess verbiage. He isn’t so dumb as not to understand that there is no other place to be. There is another place to be, the first place he goes when he receives orders: on the map.
The media seems to love finding buzzwords in the military, as it gives those reports from the front lines that certain frisson. (“Frisson,” I think, was on someone’s retirement list last year.) So it was with “on the ground.”
Our language guardians, I note, love to pick on three things: news reporting, the military, and business. Deservedly so, perhaps; all three are awash in buzzwords. But there’s one place they never look.
This came to mind when considering a couple of comments at Rebecca Rosenblum’s blog, in which people confessed that they weren’t entirely sure of the meaning of “rhetoric.”
Rhetoric, sez the good old Handbook to Literature, is “the art of persuasion”, but Webster’s online dictionary is less sure; according to that source, “rhetoric” means little more than “discourse.” And this is the very meaning of “buzzword”: a word with a specialized application that has become so overused that it has lost much of its original value.
“Discourse,” perhaps, is similarly meaningless. How about “narrative?” Or “trope?”
On the ground, these words have become rather empty. We know this because we’re no longer quite sure of their meanings. I use “rhetoric” to mean “persuasive language; persuasion.” Mostly. And secondarily, “cheap talk from people who prorogue when the going gets rough” (but I digress). But I know I’m not alone in finding that I’m not always certain what’s meant when I read that word. I know what I mean; what you mean is a whole nother problem.
Clearly, people who count themselves literate have a whole class of buzzwords all their own.
The fact is, we all use buzzwords; they’re a part of the living language. That self-proclaimed literate class, those people who claim to be so sensitive to language that the mere use of “paradigm shift” provokes nausea, seem to lack an awareness of their own sloppy usage. If the authors of those lists, and all those people amused by them, were really so sensitive to language, perhaps they’d pluck the timber out of their own eyes and pass it through the buzzword buzzsaw.