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Linguistic Self-Indulgence and Meaning by Indirection

American public discourse is full of clichés, especially of the figurative kind, so that shallow phrases like “low-hanging fruit” and “kick the can down the road” are inevitably to be met with at every turn. In fact, there are certain speakers––not just politicians or persons in the media––who cannot put anything into words without resorting to locutions of this sort. By extension, the use of figurative expressions from one stylistic domain in referring to material in another––for instance, calling a physician’s practice a “hustle” (without any necessary pejorative connotation)––is to be regarded as yet another prevalent form of linguistic self-indulgence.

In all such instances, what we have in current speech is a tilt toward meaning by indirection, which amounts to an avoidance of precision. Plainspokenness and direct designation of concepts and actions are sacrificed at the altar of what is erroneously taken to be enhanced expressiveness, whereas all that this discourse strategy achieves is a reliance on clichés and dead tropes that exposes their utterers’ fundamental impoverishment of thought.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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