The S&R list of banned phrases, vol. 1

We all have pet peeves when it comes to language – terms or phrases that grate on our nerves, common misuses that drive us bonkers, etc. But past the mere annoyances there’s a more corrosive category of terminology that does actual damage to the culture. Words and expressions that, when we hear them, signal that either someone is an idiot or thinks we are. Subtle misdirections designed to leave us believing things that aren’t true. Constructions carefully crafted to encourage us to hear that which wasn’t actually said. And so on.

So the S&R team has pulled together a brief primer of terms and phrases that we don’t ever want to hear again, at least not in the cynical context in which we’re accustomed to encountering them. (If anything here offends you because you do it, too, and you don’t think you’re guilty, don’t feel bad. As we’ve looked over each other’s entries some of us have been indicted, as well.)

From Sam Smith

Support the troops: Know what – we all support the troops, bitch. If you looked hard enough you could probably find 15 or 20 Americans who wish the troops ill, but for the most part all Americans are behind all our men and women in uniform all the time. What this phrase really intends is that the speaker (or the driver of the car with the dumbass bumper sticker or even lamer yellow ribbon decal) thinks you should support George Bush and the rest of the goddamned morons who lied us into Iraq (and if your bumper sticker actually says “Support Our Troops and President Bush,” as though those two things had anything to do with each other, you need a righteous caning, and I mean right now). There our brave kids can shed their blood for the hateful, narrow, greedy ambitions of a pack of gutless neocon chickenhawks whose bravery and patriotism would vanish instantly if “support” meant that they or their families or the families of their born-rich buddies had to step into harm’s way.

Those of you who use the phrase or have the bumper sticker and who don’t feel this way, I sympathize. It’s a noble and honest sentiment. But strip off the bumper sticker, because you’re being used by people whose real support ends at the tip of their forked tongues.

Cut and run or stay the course?: As soon as you say it, you’ve graciously reproduced a brutally cynical warmonger frame. Karl Rove thanks you. And I hope you don’t need this one explained to you.

Flip-flopper: A bullshit frame that takes the process of learning – because none of us was born omniscient – and turns it into a vice. Ever done, thought or said something stupid, and then realized the error of your ways? Right – you’re a flip-flopper. And if a person isn’t a flip-flopper, he or she is pigheadedly stupid and patently unfit for public office to be out of the house off-leash.

Unborn child: It’s called a “fetus.” As soon as you use the Religious Right frame you announce to the world that you think citizenship begins at conception. Which – religious implications notwithstanding – leads us into all kinds of difficulties. Like if you kill a woman, how many murder charges should you face? And how about all those unconceived children? – they have rights, too, you know. And shouldn’t I be able to start claiming Li’l Sammy as a tax deduction from the time he’s conceived?

If your beliefs are such that you do think life begins at conception, have the guts to say it and stand behind it. Don’t try and win the argument by sneaking one past us.

I’m sure I’ll think of more…

From Martin Bosworth

Going forward, on the table, pushback, lessons learned, skin in the game/ground game, low-hanging fruit

All of these are examples of the anemic corporatist doublespeak that is infecting our discourse on every level. We’ve replaced simple plainspokenness with these worthless, cliche, barely meaningful phrases that are recited, drone-like, by legions of otherwise worthless MBAs and hacktacular consultants – and just like every other type of slang, they do two things:

  1. They get picked up on and recited by others without any real understanding as to what they’re saying; and
  2. They conceal the fact that the speaker either has nothing substantial to say or is incapable of articulating it in a fashion more eloquent than that of your average Bush administration crony explaining his sudden resignation.

From Mike Sheehan

Is America ready for a [fill in the blank] president?

Whenever I see or hear this, I can’t help but feel that the answer is already “not really”; otherwise, the question wouldn’t need to be asked. Also, the quoted individuals in the article or report are often at the extremes.

The white man (esp. when said by a white person)

This is condescension at its worst. It may be impulsive liberal guilt directing it, but it’s insulting in that implies that modern native peoples think and speak like Indians in an old Western.

From Jim Booth

The bottom line is…: Whenever I hear this I know somebody’s throat is getting cut. Usually it’s labor’s throat being cut so that executive “leaders” can award themselves obscene pay and bonuses and “golden parachute” (another loathsome term) exit deals when they’ve ruined and looted a company for their own enrichment.

Let me go on the record…: Read from a carefully crafted piece of doubletalk and equivocation that sleazy advisers / attorneys / PR men have prepared for the politician / businessperson / athlete speaking those words…..

I don’t now nor have I ever…: Spoken when the speaker (see group in previous “record” section) believes that whatever documentation / proof / witnesses to wrongdoing have been nullified….

From Nick Langewis

Special rights: This is a big one. Just because one is used to a particular group of people being denied basic rights doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled. It’s more that one doesn’t want to go to the trouble of changing one’s world views just to set things right, and it’s quite easy to confuse “what’s right” with “Hey, it’s working for me, so it’s fine the way it is.”

Sanctity of marriage: HAH! Tend your own garden and you won’t have to worry, hypocrites. People who use this phrase make me picture Kelsey Grammer giving driving tips. Don’t come crying to a queer child of divorce about “protecting marriage,” especially if you’ve fucked up three of your own.

Ownership society: I haven’t heard this one in a while, but remember how this phrase was used to “encourage homeownership” like real estate is the best investment one can make? It’s funny how I’ve by-and-large been told that by people selling mortgages or real estate. In a true “ownership society” we’d own ourselves; we wouldn’t be in hock for everything we live in, eat, drive, wear, or otherwise physically possess.

Culture of life: This phrase I have heard many times out of the mouths of the same people that don’t want your kids to have affordable medical insurance or a decent education, but will ship them off en masse to the Middle East to kill thousands and/or get killed themselves. It comes off to me as “Cherish the unborn, fuck the already living.”

From Brian Angliss

On the ground: Using this phrase applies a false gravity to whatever you’re saying. It doesn’t really mean anything that can’t be said in a more informative way.

Collateral damage: A euphemism for “anything we destroyed or anyone we killed that we didn’t mean to,” and like most euphemisms, it dehumanizes and distances the reader and the people doing the “damaging.” War is messy and awful, and when we whitewash the language describing it, we make war are the more palatable. This euphemism is most disgusting when applied to civilians accidentally slaughtered by bombs gone astray, crossfire, etc.

War on Terror: This one has started to phase out since the White House stopped using it all the time, but it still bugs me for a simple reason – terror is an emotion, and you can’t have a war on an emotion. War on terrorists, war on failed states, war on the Taliban – all of those make sense. Even “war on terrorism” doesn’t make sense, given that terrorism is a tactic that could be used in a war, but isn’t an actual state of conflict.

Ground truth: This makes it seem like the truth is something exclusively understood by someone physically located at the site of a disaster, conflict, etc. when the reality is that any situation I can think of where “ground truth” is being discussed must also be considered by a complete team of generalists, specialists, and people on-site and off.

From Rori Black

In other words (when spoken by George Bush): If he had said it well the first time he wouldn’t have to keep rephrasing it. He’s stalling; it’s his new version of “um.”

Pre/Post-9/11: The September 11 disaster was a major event in our history, but when people use this term it usually says a lot less about how the world changed meaningfully and more about how the speaker is trying to capitalize on the tragedy for political gain.

From Dr. Denny

I want to apologize to anyone whom my comments/actions may have offended…: How are you going to offer a sincere apology when you don’t even know who you’re apologizing to? This probably also means that you’re not 100% sure what you’re apologizing for.

And now, your turn. We’re almost certain that we didn’t get them all. So let us know what you’d like to add to the list of banned phrases…

36 replies »

  1. Ahhhh, “unborn child”….

    A song by Monty Python comes to mind….

    “Every sperm is sacred.
    Every sperm is great.
    If a sperm is wasted,
    God gets quite irate.

    Let the heathen spill theirs
    On the dusty ground.
    God shall make them pay for
    Each sperm that can’t be found.

    Every sperm is wanted.
    Every sperm is good.
    Every sperm is needed
    In your neighborhood….”

  2. I hate to be the contrarian, or maybe I’m just one of those 15-20 Americans (if I still have permission to call myself that), but I don’t support the troops. I have another phrase to ban; how about [i]you made your bed…[/i]? None of those employed by the government to be the “muscle” for this particular brand of thuggery can claim innocence any more than anyone else “just following orders.” The reality of this war is not words, but actions carried out by soldiers. I don’t wish personal harm on anybody – Iraqi, American, anyone. But we can’t purport to oppose the war and yet support those carrying it out.

    I [i]do[/i] agree with what you wrote about the Support the Troops propaganda, though.

    On another note, I have to whole-heartedly agree with Martin Bosworth. Those phrases annoy the shit out of, especially when uttered as substanceless fill by my illiterate boss.

  3. I have one that’s a bit less global. And I’m sure it’ll annoy the hell out of the writers out there. It’s “show, don’t tell.”

    Obviously, on the surface, that phrase makes a lot of sense. Every first year writing student knows it, repeats it, and claims to understand it. But after my last experience in a writing workshop, my guess is maybe 1 in 10,000 people can actually do it.

    So, please people, stop saying it unless you can demonstrate that you know what the hell you’re talking about. Or, at the very least, stop using that obnoxious, self-important, snobbish tone of voice when you DO say it.

  4. 7: Good one.

    It’s also a performative contradiction, isn’t it? At least until the speaker actually demonstrates the process.

    I like it here.

  5. 5. euphrosyne1115 – “Intelligent design theory” is a great one, for similar reasons to why I despise “war on terror” – Intelligent design can’t be a scientific theory simply because it can’t be scientifically tested. Of course, there’s also the fact that ID would qualify as an untestable hypothesis instead of a scientific theory, but that’s an issue of the vernacular use of “theory” vs. the scientific use of the same.

  6. Brian. Nah. I’m not a frustrated writer. That would imply I actually write on a regular basis. Which, as Sam can attest, doesn’t accurately describe what I do. 🙂 I have a draft of a book that’s been in the works for about 8 years now. About a third of it is really good. A third of it is at least mildly entertaining. And a third of it could probably be used to torture the guests at Gitmo. Heh.

    Funny thing is, every few weeks I hear something in the news that makes me jump and down screaming because, “I thought of it first, damn it!” I really should finish it before it becomes completely behind the times. Haha.

  7. Mike, I understand. I’ve been working on my first novella or novelette (I’d call it a short story, but it’s WAY too long for that, but definitely not novel length) since about 1995 and it’s been rewritten twice and edited at least 4 more times. I’m doing my last edit now and then I’m figuring that I’ll self-publish it on the Daedalnexus. We’ll see if anything comes of it at that point.

  8. Mike #7: You hate that one because I beat you over the head with it so much. And whether you like my snobbish tone or not, I KNOW what it means. I agree that not many people get it, though….

  9. I would love to see a whole range of bumper stickers here in the UK:

    Support Your Troops

    We don’t see this one and I’m fed up with hearing about our soldiers being neglected and abused in NHS hospitals. There is a call for a dedicated military hospital as a result and for no soldiers to be admitted to civilian hospitals.

    Support Your OWN Child…
    …and then tell me how to raise mine

    One Vote Is All You Have…
    …but YOU didn’t use it

    My Sex Life Is Private…
    …So I Don’t Do It In Public

    Women Are Not Evil…
    …But The Snake Makes Us Pay

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  11. 15. elaine – as someone who live about 2 hours away from Focus on the Family’s world headquarters, I know several people who would love a “Focus on your own damn family” bumper sticker.

  12. Try to subvert the pop meaning of these phrases.
    Support Our Troops takes on a new life when you add Bring Them Home NOW or Restore the VA or Ban Stop Loss…
    The Bottom Line and Collateral Damage are both pure obscenity, unredemable.
    Surely, Shock & Awe should be retired as a one-time event and To Spend Time With My Family has become comedy, though there are many people I’d love to hear say it, if only that meant they were going away.
    A lot of military slang has worked into the language and that could leave, thank you, Git R Done is particularly annoying.

  13. We needs must, however, take a moment to honor the cliche (less objectionable ones than these anyway). Their discreet use not only livens up prose, but gives the reader something to hang his hat on.

    Any writer who thinks he’s not using cliches is kidding himself.

  14. Made some editorial mistakes: Ignore “2nd: Ditto” There is no 2nd.

    From Martin Bosworth

    Going forward, on the table, pushback, lessons learned, skin in the game/ground game, low-hanging fruit: First term: Self explanatory. 2nd: Ditto. 3rd: Sounds like it could start with the phrase,

  15. Brian: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Heh.

    Sam: I wasn’t talking about you, you poser. 🙂 But if it helps, even after I removed every scrape of “tell” out of a short story I wrote, I was STILL told to “show.” And besides, since you’re busy runnin’ 47 blogs, I don’t talk to you about writing no mo’.

  16. Funny that nobody mentioned “family values” Whose family? What values? Are your “family values” the same as mine? Will you force your family values down my throat, if yours differ from mine? I can think of one family, whose values include lying as natural as breathing. They accomodate a genocidal maniac, who is also a deserter and warmonger at the same time. Their young ones are uberprotected, and use their connections to do underage drinking. Now I heard that one of them got knocked up and is getting married. She got knocked up despite the family professing saving it for the spouse… They are not afraid to send children of other people to war, as long as their relatives remain protected. So are their “family values”. Are they values? What a “family value” consists of? Should this totally meaningless phrase be banned or what?

  17. Another corporatist term I hate is the use of “impact” rather than “affect”. For example: “How will your team be impacted by these changes?”. It sounds like the team members are all going to be hit very hard, or perhaps even forcibly trapped like an impacted wisdom tooth.
    My personal theory is that people use “impact” because they can’t remember, or can’t understand, the difference between “affect” and “effect”. Accordingly, whenever I hear someone using “impact” rather than “affect” I automatically assume they’re a moron.

  18. I would like to ban “I’m just saying…” because it is always used as an excuse to say something personally offensive to someone else that you wouldn’t want said to you. Like “we’re all thinking it, but I’m the only one with the courage to say it”.

  19. My contribution:

    “It was an error in judgment. I love it when public figures use this as their explanation in their “apologies.” Of course it was an error in judgment! You’re stating what everyone already knows

  20. #28: Roy: It’s not because they don’t know the difference between effect and affect; it’s because you don’t want to ever give the impression that you

  21. “Business is Business” or “It’s Nothing personal ,it’s just business”
    this is said before screwing someone over usually a (former) friend or family member.

  22. Anything with the word “Homeland” in it.

    And every time I hear the [hrase “if you will” I cringe, it’s so Dickkk Cheney. I heard the Jr Senator from TN say it today on CSPAN, I wanted to kick him in the shins.

  23. 34. Dee Loralei:

    Homeland – the marraige of the Fatherland and the Motherland; it’s really very applicable in our current fascist state.