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Column: Lamenting language lapses

Those of us who deal with words on a daily basis tend to get bent out of shape from time to time over the ways language gets distorted.

Herewith, I get some of it off my chest.

It’s a toss-up as to the worst defilers: politicians, computer geeks, or — irony of ironies — the media.

How many times have I sat through interminable presentations by Washington bureaucrats whose speeches were laced with “at that point in time” and wished for a Captain Marvel ray gun programmed to blast into oblivion anyone uttering the phrase? Five words to say “now”? Today, more than a decade after it became the “in” phrase, one would think it would have faded away. No such luck. It may now be so endemic that, like death, taxes, and political obfuscation, it will be with us unto eternity.

Why does everyone, from President Bush on down, feel compelled to advise that “this is an historic occasion” — the verbal equivalent to fingernails scraping on the blackboard? It’s “an herb,” but “a historic occasion.” Would they also say “an haircut” or “an hamburger”?

Those in the media are some of the worst offenders. Mr. Bush “helicoptered” to Camp David? Gimme a break. Then there were the commentators at the ’04 Olympics who mind-numbingly speculated that so-and-so “will medal” or “medaled” in whatever competition.

A Memphis TV weatherperson advised that this year’s tropical storm Matthew “will result in an enhanced moisture event.” He couldn’t have said, “It’s going to rain a lot”? Talk about techno-babble…

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and assorted bureaucrats are ever-so-fond of the ever-so-pretentious Spanish terms, “redact” and “redacted,” when “edit” and “edited” would be a lot more comprehensible to the average reader (but then I guess their readers aren’t average).

One can only wonder at the terminology of the computer world. While Windows, Macintosh, and other operating systems have rendered much of the programmer-level language invisible to the user (I remember inwardly cringing at the early-day ominous message: “Fatal error”), all those cryptic warnings apparently still lurk somewhere in the depths of transistordom, just waiting for an opportune moment to spring forth.

This one pops up on my screen from time to time: “HP 9500 is out of paper: Intervention needed.” It would’ve been too simple, I suppose, to say: “The printer needs paper”?

Another advises: “Request entity too large.” Meaning what? I should lose some pounds? Yet another cautions of “a personality conflict.” I’m being psychoanalyzed by a machine?

Then there’s, “This program has performed an illegal operation and will shut down.” Illegal operation? Felony or misdemeanor? And will my transgression be recorded in the Great Microsoft Book in the Sky?

There is hope, though. A recent error message said, simply, “You can’t do that.” Hallelujah! Somewhere there’s a programmer who knows Plainspeak.

A while ago, there was a contest (supposedly sponsored by Sony) to rewrite computer error messages in Japanese haiku form. One of my favorites:

Three things are certain:

Death, taxes, and lost data.

Guess which has occurred?


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