Op-Ed

The existential threat of positive yardage

Ron Formisano
Ron Formisano

‘Tis the season to be merry, so let’s have some fun with the politicians and television talking heads who use meaningless clichés, news-ese, politican-ese, bureaucrat-ese and sports-ese.

Ask them to resolve in the New Year to retire or at least use less frequently words and phrases that are pretentious, space fillers, empty or, ahem, as they say problematical. Some words, definitions and examples:

  • Frankly, honestly: Member of Congress indicates he is departing from usual practice of lying
  • Job killing: Republican response to anything, absolutely anything President Barack Obama proposes, including “Merry Christmas”
  • On the ground: Conveys speaker’s detailed knowledge of a situation she knows nothing about
  • Boots on the ground: As above, but also conveys military savvy from draft avoider who wants no member of his family in Afghanistan
  • Class warfare: Asking very, very rich people to pay more in taxes than their landscapers and secretaries
  • To spend more time with my family: Sick of sucking up to billionaires for campaign cash or facing tough re-election
  • Mistakes were made: Not sure who, so no one is responsible, certainly not me
  • The American people think: “I think,” a Mitch McConnell favorite
  • I misspoke: I accidentally told the embarrassing truth
  • I misunderstood the question: See above
  • Politically motivated: Anything my opponent says, never me
  • The American People No. 2: A fraction of Republican voters
  • Gotcha Questions: These expose lies, contradictions, delusions but must never be asked of anyone wanting to be president
  • Obama’s unpopularity: A euphemism for… but let’s keep this light and merry
  • Real progress: As opposed to those other kinds and “unreal progress”
  • At the end of the day: Also confers gravitas, deep thinker
  • That being said or having been said: See above
  • The American dream: No other nation defines itself in terms of a dream, maybe that explains a few things
  • Thoughts and prayers: A default button to avoid saying something truly empathetic

And a few from sports announcers:

  • Struggling: Losing; in a slump; missing shots, striking out
  • Positive yardage: The opposite of “a loss of negative yardage”
  • Good speed: Not bad speed (or slow)
  • We said at the top of the show: A Phil Sims favorite, means “I said”
  • NFL player “with issues”: Has committed domestic violence
  • College player who has “faced adversity”: Accused of rape, but no charges against the poor dear

The runner up prize for the most pretentious goes to:

Existential: Use indicates a “very serious person” even though existentialism is a philosophy associated with French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Maybe they mean something “exists” as heard often now, ISIS poses an “existential threat,” indicating something far more dangerous than an “existing threat.”

Problematical: This ubiquitous word wins the pretentious sweepstakes. It originated in the 1930s among disputing sects of Marxists as a noun, as in “the problematical” — it might have meant a difficult hypothesis to prove as in, exactly how will the dictatorship of the proletariat comes about, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin? Beats me.

Ron Formisano is University of Kentucky William T. Bryan Chair of American History and professor of history emeritus.

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