Speech Peculiarities That Make My Teeth Itch
When Pastor Rick Warren invited Barack Obama—the charismatic new Democratic senator from Illinois—to speak at an AIDS conference at the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, California, a number of conservative Christians urged that the invitation be rescinded.
They were angry at Obama’s liberal position on abortion.
“If Senator Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country, he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis,” wrote Phyllis Schlafly—head of the conservative Eagle Forum—in an open letter. “You cannot fight one evil while justifying another.”
I admit that I’ve no interest in hearing certain speakers—neo-Nazis, members of the KKK, apologists for dropping the atom bomb on Japan, spokesmen for the Man/Boy Love Association and Suze Ormond—to name a few.
However, as a sometimes speaker and inveterate television dial-surfer, I relish the opportunity to see great orators in action. Much can be learned from how they put together a talk and deliver it. My four current TV favorites are: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Bishop T.D. Jakes, the young Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.
On the other hand, all lousy speechmakers should be muzzled and not invited to address a group of people that you care about.
The Most Irritating Philadelphian
Whenever a civic issue came up in my Philadelphia neighborhood that directly affected my life—such as the construction of a massive casino complex 10 blocks from my house or a reassessment plan that would triple my real estate taxes—I would attend a neighborhood meeting to learn more about it.
I stopped going to these meetings.
The head of the local organization is intelligent and personable, but drives me nuts.
She’s a dark-haired, attractive young woman and quite articulate. But when she addresses the group, she constantly says “um.”
Not a quiet, low-key “um.”
Rather, she presses her lips together hard and says “UMMMMM” very loudly, with the sound projecting from the mask and out the nose like a singer humming.
“And … UMMMMM … if you will talk to Barb Whosits, she’ll … UMMMMM … get you a copy of that report.”
I started hearing only the “UMMMMM” and nothing else.
I don’t go to her meetings any more.
Not Just Local Yokels
The British use the term “newsreaders” to describe TV anchors. While they appear to be looking directly at you and speaking conversationally, they’re—in fact—reading from a script that’s unrolling right in front of them.
Some news people are good ad libbers. Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Tim Russert are excellent examples of flawless, extemporaneous speakers.
But one night, NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski delivered a polished analysis of the Iraq situation, which he obviously read off a TelePrompter. Brian Williams then asked follow-up questions and “Mik” started punctuating his answers with “uh.” Just about every sentence began with “uh” and frequently “uh” popped into mid-sentence as well. Miklaszewski may be a first-rate newsman, but he’s a second-rate performer.
If Jay Leno’s delivery were this poor, he’d be driving a bus rather than a classic car from his multi-million dollar collection.
Words and Phrases That Irritate the Hell out of me
When my wife, Peggy, and I moved to Philly to take over the management of Target Marketing magazine, editorial meetings came with the territory. We had a bunch of young editors that said “like” a lot.
Not an occasional “like,” but rather two and three of them per sentence. Finally, in desperation, I brought a little sterling silver bell to the office and placed it in front of me on the conference table. “This is the ‘Like Bell,’” I announced during a meeting. “Any time I hear the word, ‘like,’ I’ll ring the bell.”
The session started out with a lot of bell ringing. The habit was broken fairly quickly. “Like” is—for me—the most offensive word in the English language.
For example, when I walk down Philadelphia’s raffish South Street, that’s crawling with teenagers who smoke cigarettes and loudly use the word “like”—like it might go out of style as they like yammer to each other or like into a like cellphone—I want to slash my wrists.
Other words and phrases I wish people would avoid:
Newt Gingrich is one of the most fascinating men in Washington. Yet when referencing this nation, he talks about “Amurka” and “Amurkin”—a pronunciation that momentarily transforms him from an articulate, political philosopher and historian into a red-necked, Georgia hayseed. Saying “Amurkin” requires a sour pout, a downturn of the mouth. Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Amerrykin”—with the accent on “merry”—and it always came out with a happy smile. It was Roosevelt’s infectious optimism that got us through the Depression and World War II. Incidentally, Gingrich might be persuaded to change his pronunciation if he knew that the Wiktionary definition of a “merkin” (pronounced “mûrkn”) is a “17th century term for a pubic wig, worn for nude stage appearances by women after shaving their privates to eliminate lice.”
* as it were/* if you will/* per se
Fillers and useless.
* as we speak
The Grand Canyon is awesome. Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon was awesome. A chocolate dessert is not awesome.
The Brits use this the way Americans use “awesome!”
* chum/* dude/* pal
Gratuitous appellations used with an implicit sneer.
* I mean
* ya know
* kind of/* sort of
I watched a C-SPAN program as Michele Goldberg, the author of “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” addressed some learned group. She was brilliant, articulate, young and very attractive. She fielded questions with the aplomb of a Gold Glove second baseman. Except that she incessantly used “ya know” and “kind of.” Not a sentence went by without one or the other—or both—of these dumb phrases to the point where I ended up having no idea what she talked about because I was so mesmerized by her bizarre speech patterns.
* Lemme astcha question
Chris Matthews, the ebullient host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” prefaces every question to a guest with “Lemme astcha question.”
Some speakers use this in conversation and occasionally in speeches. They end sentences with “Okay?” as if to make sure everybody “got it.”
* once again, ladies and gentlemen
This is a line used by people that have to fill time so they repeat themselves a second and third time. On a cruise through the Baltic, the shore manager used this line 10 times and more in every talk.
* on the same page
* Ya know what I’m sayin’?
* Your call is important to us
The ultimate recorded oxymoron
* Well …
This is a word that is used constantly by interviewees on television. I would estimate that 90 percent of all answers to questions begin with, “Well …”
To me the most irritating and inane sentence to creep into constant use in the English language is:
“I mean it was like wow.”
The Plain English Poll
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Plain English Campaign surveyed 5,000 supporters in 70 countries. They voted on the most irritating phrase in the language. The results:
* 1. At the end of the day
* 2. At this moment in time
* 3. the constant use of like as if it were a form of punctuation
* 4. With all due respect
From the Plain English press release of 23 March 2004:
Spokesman John Lister said over-used phrases were a barrier to communication. “When readers or listeners come across these tired expressions, they start tuning out and completely miss the message - assuming there is one! Using these terms in daily business is about professional as wearing a novelty tie or having a wacky ringtone on your phone.
“George Orwell’s advice from 1946 is still worth following: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’”
Other nominations from the Plain English survey:
* address the issue
* around (in place of “about”)
* ballpark figure
* basis (“on a weekly basis” in place of “weekly” and so on)
* bear with me
* between a rock and a hard place
* blue sky (thinking)
* boggles the mind
* bottom line
* crack troops
* diamond geezer
* epicenter (used incorrectly)
* glass half full (or half empty)
* going forward
* I hear what you’re saying …
* in terms of …
* it’s not rocket science
* move the goal-posts
* pushing the envelope
* singing from the same hymn sheet
* the fact of the matter is
* thinking outside the box
* to be honest/to be honest with you/to be perfectly honest
* touch base
* up to (in place of “about”)
* value-added (in general use)
The Factiva Study
On Aug. 15, 2006 mediabistro.com released a study titled “At The End Of The Day, Study In Hot Pursuit Of Popular Press Clichés Reveals Low-Hanging Fruit.” From the study:
Citing a whopping 10,000 news sources, including the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the Associated Press, an analysis by Factiva of clichés used by the press, by far the most commonly used is “at the end of the day.” “In the black” and “in the red” follow at no. 2 and 3, respectively. While lazy, we’re not quite sure how “concerned residents” qualifies as a cliché, but at the end of the day, you have to think outside the box.
The other 17 clichés most used in the American business press (in descending order for frequency):
* level playing field
* time and again
* about face
* wealth of experience
* split second
* time is running out
* outpouring of support
* think outside the box
* last-ditch effort
* time after time
* concerned residents
* unsung heroes
* low hanging fruit
* clean bill of health
* hot pursuit
* up the ante
The B.S. Factor
In his widely praised guest column that appeared in the last issue of Business Common Sense titled “Developing and Delivering High-impact Sales Presentations,” ARGI CEO Ray Butkus suggested:
Platitudes like “cutting edge technology” or “state of the art infrastructure” are nearly worthless, so don’t waste your time by including them in your presentation.
What Butkus has suggested is—to coin a phrase—the tip of the iceberg. A truly great Web site is the “Web Economy Bullshit Generator.” It not only lists verbs, adjectives and nouns to be avoided in speech and writing, but also allows you to see them in combination with one another.
If you visit the Web site (http://dack.com/web/bullshit.html/) and click on “make bullshit,” phrases start popping up that will cause you to giggle and cringe at the same time.
One Final Thought on B.S.
A quiet best seller (#511 on Amazon as of Dec. 10) is “On Bullshit,” a slim volume by Harry G. Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and published by Princeton University Press.
Frankfurt’s meandering exploration of the nature of B.S. is written in the dense, turgid and undisciplined prose that’s typical of academia—boring as a suitcase full of rocks and utterly unreadable.
But the idea of this title coming from a world-renowned scholar and teacher—and published by the respected Princeton University Press—is hilarious. “On Bullshit,” is a great gift and a wonderful coffee table book that will show off your eclectic tastes.
In short, “On Bullshit,” is itself pure B.S.