From cliches to banalities and bizarre word usages, here's why I'm still cranky about language
Mark H. Alcott
Editor’s note: In his previous essay, Mark Alcott bemoaned numerous cringeworthy linguistic errors that appear in common parlance, even among the purportedly literate classes. In this piece, he expresses his displeasure at various cliches, banalities and bizarre usages that mar contemporary discourse.
Now that I’ve established my linguistic bona fides—and my cantankerous personality—let me move from do’s and don’ts to my personal likes and dislikes.
Here are a few. You’ll notice the list contains no likes—only dislikes.
Attorney-client privilege. This evidentiary rule is beloved by my colleagues, but our profession is notorious for its terrible public relations. Hence, we constantly invoke a phrase that immediately generates resistance from the public and prompts this question: “Why should lawyers and their clients have privileges?”
Of course, those of us who understand legal jargon know that the term privilege as so used is rooted in the common law of evidence and does not mean the same thing as the term privilege when used in common parlance. Those relying on this rule have a relationship that, the law recognizes, entitles them to privacy when communicating with one another. Privacy is good; privilege is bad. Accordingly, we should forget about privilege and give this evidentiary rule a new name that describes the worthy purpose it serves: attorney-client privacy. Problem solved.
Thank you for taking the time. I hate cliches, and this is the cliche du jour. It is usually addressed to a lecturer who has just completed his remarks (“Thank you for taking the time to speak to us”); an expert who has provided advice (“Thank you for taking the time to meet with us”); a media interview guest (“Thank you for taking the time to come on our program”); or the like. It reflects the total lack of imagination of the person uttering it, who cannot find an intelligent rejoinder to what has just been imparted. When I hear this banality addressed to someone else, I cringe. When I’m the one on the receiving end, I find it more than slightly insulting. “My time? That’s it? That’s all the thanks I get? Anybody can provide time. What about the quality of my speech, or the value of my advice, or the insights in my answers to your questions? Can you not at least thank me for the substance that I provided?” Of course, not even I am churlish enough to say that, so I grin and bear it; and the opportunity for a true dialogue passes. Pity.
Without further ado. This is the companion cliche too frequently uttered by those introducing a guest speaker—the same people who generally become time-thankers when the speaker finishes. It usually follows an uninspired recital of the guest speaker’s bio. It reduces those accomplishments to an undistinguished “ado.”
If I ever heard the phrase uttered after an entertaining introduction, I would shout out “No! No! I want more ado. Give us further ado.” But that has never happened, and I doubt it ever will.
That’s a great question. Too great, usually. When I hear this response after a pointed query is put to a politician, expert, adversary or witness, I know we’re not going to get a straight answer. This technique is generally used to disarm and deflect the questioner while giving the respondent time to change the subject. It is a particular favorite of evasive interview guests on Sunday morning talk shows, and it usually works.
Volunteers. The American Bar Association, in which I’m proud to play a prominent role, is the leading professional society for lawyers. For reasons I have never understood, those who hold the top positions in our organization—including the officers, committee and section chairs, board members, and the like—are called (and even call themselves) volunteers. Why? A volunteer is the family member who comes forward to wash the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner. A nice gesture but not much substantive content. I and many others like me provide ideas, substance, guidance, energy and (yes) time to move this great association forward at the highest level. Don’t trivialize that effort by calling us volunteers. Call us what we are: leaders.
Icons. In ancient times, there was no written language. People used stick figures and other primitive drawings to record their words and thoughts. These gradually became standardized and evolved into hieroglyphics and the equivalent. From there, humans developed alphabets and, ultimately, written languages of great sophistication.
For unexplained reasons, however, we are now bringing back picture language. The biggest promoter of this anti-alphabet trend is the internet, where emoticons and emojis are ubiquitous. But even offline, icons are frequently used instead of written words to convey important messages, including some that are urgent. I refer, for example, to the little green man and the red hand that have replaced go and stop on our traffic signals; the mystifying wavy lines that purport to tell us how to activate air conditioning and defrosting in our cars; the large exclamation points that convey something important (but what?) about road repairs.
The icons that really make me crazy appear inside elevators with automatic doors. Their purpose is to tell us how to close the door that remains open too long and, more important, how to open the door that is starting to close on some poor soul who is desperate to enter. You know what I mean. They look like this: ►◄ and ◄►.
My problem is that, in the split seconds in which I must act to prevent the doors from crushing the aforementioned soul, I cannot remember which is which. Either I press the close button when I intend to keep the doors open, thereby risking someone’s life and limb; or I stand there frozen while the doors slam in their face. To the onlooker and the poor soul, it appears that I am either a sadist or an idiot. I therefore make this plea to the world’s elevator manufacturers, engineers, architects and landlords: Double PUHLEEZ, use words— open and close will do—not schematics on these emergency buttons.
Acronyms. Some entities are so prominent that they don’t have to use their names; they are instantly recognizable by their initials. I refer to such iconic institutions as IBM, the NFL, the USA and, of course, the ABA.
But then there are the wannabes, entities that are (deservedly) obscure but nevertheless pretentiously tout their initials as if they need no further identification. Trust me, they do. I won’t name them, but they know who they are, or at least they should.
Even sillier is the practice of speaking an entity’s initials as if they formed a real word. Sometimes they do but only because the entity’s name has been contorted to extremes for the sole purpose of producing a snappy acronym. More often, the spoken acronym has no real-word analog and comes across as complete gibberish.
I recently heard a distinguished bar leader mention “the importance of [what sounded like] KLEE.” I know of the great Swiss painter Paul Klee, but I couldn’t imagine what he had to do with the legal profession. Turned out to be a reference to CLE (continuing legal education), in which the actual name is almost never used anymore and, therefore, the purpose has now become totally obscure.
In this environment, there looms a particularly troubling (to me) trend. My cherished home bar is the storied New York State Bar Association, where the leadership of our profession dates back to the 19th century. Some of my dear colleagues have now abandoned this renowned name and started calling it by the meaningless acronym “Nyesbah”. Triple oy. Please don’t.
In sum, watch your language. But another warning should also be heeded: Watch the absence of language.
Mark H. Alcott has spent his career at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as partner and now of counsel, serving as litigator, arbitrator, mediator, author, lecturer and professional/community activities leader. His positions include the ABA Board of Governors and House of Delegates; fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers; and former president of the New York State Bar Association.
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