Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that its most frequently downloaded PDF (according to Awstats) is the article “Wimp English” (American Speech 68.3 , 327-330), co-written by my wife of blessed memory, Marianne Shapiro, a scholar with a high level of awareness (and avoidance) of speech mannerisms, especially clichés. The Macmillan Dictionary definition of this phraseologism is ‘FORMAL used when describing something in an unusual way or in a way that you think someone might not agree with;’ (Example: “It’s relaxation; another form of meditation, if you will.”) Whereas this locution is heard les and less frequently in public discourse, the corresponding British English phrase “if you like” is still to be heard often enough, if speakers on BBC World Service are any measure of its frequency. The Oxford Living Dictionaries definition is ‘Used when expressing something in a new or tentative way’ (Ex: ‘it’s a whole new branch of chemistry, a new science if you like’).
While the speech practices of present-day Albion with regard to this phraseologism have alredy been instanced herein (“Fear of Linguistic Indirection: British ‘if you like’,” March 31, 2016), perhaps it would bear emphasis to say that speakers are evidently sensitive to the limits of credibility of their utterances and structure them with this awareness in mind, quite apart from their epistemic truthfulness or validity. The thoughts, attitudes, and value systems lying behind speech are always ready to be linguistically expressed––and are––when needed.
Repetition is a necessary part of speech and discourse in every language.Clichés exist only through repetition. Contemporary American English, especially media language, however, has hypertrophied in recent years to such an extent as to risk stylistic opprobrium. To recall a fresh example, Y-H-B has a lifelong friend who prefaces almost every non-initial utterance with the phrase “having said that,” to the point where it has become a verbal tic.
Speaking of which, my father (who was fluent in five languages, including German) often told the joke of a subordinate in Germany who constantly added the word Exzellenz to every sentence he addressed to his superior. (Exzellenz ‘Excellency’ is a German form of address for certain high officials or dignitaries, as it is in English.) Finally, the superior said to his subordinate: “Ab und zu Exzellenz,” which means “[use] Excellency [only] from time to time!”
So it should be with excessive preference for metaphors over plainspokenness. There is no necessary gain in communicative force or stylistic excellence when speakers constantly resort to metaphorical expressions instead of direct speech. As with all aspects of linguistic choice, metaphoricity increases in stylistic aptness and communicative power only in the measure of its judicious deployment.
The meaning of words is rarely stable throughout the history of a language, and English is no exception, witness the current change in the government of the verb to center, which has traditionally been used with the postposition on but is increasingly heard with around instead, especially in media speech.
Why is this occurring? The most straightforward explanation involves the effacement the core meaning of center in its verbal hypostasis. Speakers evidently no longer understand that the conceptual semantic integrity of center excludes the notion of “periphery” and is univocally bound up with the logical quiddity of the word. In other words, the postposition around is coming into use with the verb center because there has been an oblivion of the core meaning and a shift toward the erroneous meaning “association with.” This change-in-progress of contemporary American English speech has to be seen for what it is, viz. one of the many FAILURES OF THOUGHT confronted here in earlier posts.