Verbal Virus

A brilliant hacker at Cornell University recently taught us how much damage a computer virus can do to communications’ nervous systems, but we had long known that terminal disease has an electronic application. More troubling, perhaps because more human, is a language virus, transmitted orally or on paper, that spreads and replicates until meaning itself is destroyed.

The term sea-change , for example, surges through the media these days, usually suggesting something mammoth--as a sea-change in Soviet politics or a sea-change in Sean Penn’s police relations. The original usage was Shakespeare’s, and the bard was literally suggesting what the sea could do to a human body. Only in 1988 did a tidal wave of sea-changes cover the land as well.

Arguably is, arguably, the latest fad in suggesting uncertainty. The trouble is the way it appears everywhere and may confuse--should be argued or may be argued--even as it hedges.

A learned editor in this neighborhood has decided to forbid writers from having anyone shoot himself or herself or themselves in the foot to describe inadvertent behavior. If all the recently shot feet stood end-to-end, they would stretch the length of the John Muir Trail.


Unique is a word that isn’t. This virus has so infected the language that particular or unusual or other simple, less assertive terms for rarity have all but disappeared in favor of a one and only connotation--usually false, often in an advertisement.

Cliches are the most common strain of language virus. Gobbledygook is the mutation most often affecting bureaucrats and politicians who would rather be obscure than be right. The National Council of Teachers of English awarded Public Doublespeak citations for 1988 to the agricultural spokesperson who called pigs and cows “grain-consuming animal units,” and to the safety expert who described an aircraft crash as “uncontrolled contact with the ground.”

At this point in time, our lingering wheeze from Watergate days, there is no vaccine for verbal virus. Susceptible word-consuming human units are advised to avoid talk shows and look out for 30-second spots.