Words for a young century: Did we start speaking differently in 2000 or is that my bad?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 October 2003)

When I'm in the zone I sometimes think the English language began a process of change on or about Jan. 1, 2000. I have the sense that all of us are now busy inventing new, specifically 21st-century ways to talk and write. Is that weird or what? It's impossible to prove, of course, and my more cautious friends will warn me against so rash a theory. Don't go there, is how they'll put it. But I'm stepping right up to it, because in this business, the word business, you stay focused or somebody comes along and eats your lunch. And that's something with which, frankly, I have issues.

Admittedly, much of what we say, from wiggle room to comfort zone, originated in the 20th century and simply grew more popular in the 21st. We can seldom know exactly when a given element of language was born. (How much research would be required to get precise dating? Do the math.) Still, certain phrases sound totally new to me. Did anyone speak of embedded journalists or regime change before this millennium? What about "My bad"? You use it when you might otherwise say "my mistake," as in "Sorry, my bad." I didn't know it existed until this year, but last week it showed up in the scripts of two different TV dramas on successive nights, in both cases as part of ordinary conversation.

We can't always come up with something fresh, however, and when invention fails we find ways to refurbish certain 20th-century terms for 21st-century use. We had diversity consultants before 2000, but the other day on CBC radio I heard someone proudly describe herself as "a practitioner of diversity." Same job, more class. In business language, the word "driven" adds a touch of manic energy to phrases that would otherwise feel dull and worn. If you call your new advertising plan research-based, it sounds old-fashioned. Call it research-driven, on the other hand, and people perk up. Now it sounds almost urgent. In the planning conferences of CBC radio they speak about host-driven programs and content-driven programs. You might not be able to tell them apart when listening to the radio, but a programming executive knows there's a world of difference.

This language play springs from the same upward-striving impulse that long ago transformed the personnel department into the human resources division. Through our words we express our aspirations. What we all want, of course, is an upgrade. We know that the right words, spoken at precisely the right moment in history, move us to a slightly higher plane of existence. We may not know it, but as we cobble together our sentences we are all versions of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, reinventing ourselves through the way we talk.

But fashionable language, by its nature, grows obsolete and soon begins to date you. People stopped saying "proactive" when they realized it meant the same as active. They abandoned "win-win" after it became a sales tool. Unfortunately, words and phrases don't come with sell-by labels on them; you have to develop your own sense of timing. In 2003, language-sensitive people probably won't want to be caught saying "bottom line," unless they are referring to the actual bottom line of an actual balance sheet. But there are said to be corporations where an adaptation performs well as a verb: "Would you bottom line this for me please?" "We'll get going just as soon as we bottom line it."

I believe it's still OK to describe easy profits as "low-hanging fruit," but that phrase may now be heading for the ritual burying ground of dead metaphors, there to join 300-pound (or sometimes 800-pound) gorillas, which used to mean extremely powerful men.

Today there's broad general agreement that you can no longer think outside the box or push the envelope, and you must not under any circumstances go near the cutting edge. Instead, take it to the next level. (Nobody can claim they've been there, done that.) Whatever else you say, try to work in the word "sense." You can say "There's a sense in which" or "What is your sense of ...?" or "In a sense ..." It's hard to go wrong with this one. It adds gravitas; listen for it on TV talk shows.

No one in Canada sings from the same hymn books anymore, and we don't make a practice of dancing with the girl that brung us: Those words were pure Brian Mulroney, and went out like a light when he did. In the United States it's not permissible to say "That dog won't hunt" or to claim you feel someone's pain; those are verbal debris from the Clinton era. As for feeding frenzies and deep doo-doo, talking that way puts you squarely back in the era of George Bush I.

The words of sportscasters and athletes are favourite targets of all those who would purge the language of inanity, but few understand the beautiful emptiness of sports talk. As a one-time sports writer, I've always known that the best phrases arising from sports mean absolutely nothing. Unviolated by thought or fact, they have the innocent blankness of an ivory-walled art gallery before the first paintings are moved in. At their best they empty the mind of thought, like Buddhist prayers.

In the 1988 film Bull Durham, the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) gives language instruction to a callow but talented pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Crash is gratified when Nuke, elevated to a major-league team, proves right away that he can speak fluent baseball: "We've got to play them one game at a time." It's not possible to construct a sentence with less meaning than that one, but no one ever asks what other way games might be played.

Similarly, when a player says he and his mates have to put points on the scoreboard, the question of where else you might put them does not arise. Basically, the key sports phrases never grow old and may be used in any century: It was a total team effort, he knows what it takes to win, he gives 110% and, my all-time favourite, he came to play. That's perfect sportspeak. It doesn't get any better than that.

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