After his treatment for prostate cancer, the journalist Dana Jennings cringed when he was described as being “brave” in his “fight” and “battle” against the disease. He says, “It pays to have a positive outlook, I think, but that in no way translates to ‘fighting’ cancer. Cancer simply is.” Later he says, “bravery entails choice, and most patients have very little choice but to undergo treatment.”
Other commonly used words, like “victim” and even “survivor,” also don’t quite fit. Jennings says he was just “trying to complete the metamorphosis from brittle husk to being just me again.”
At certain times, words can be inadequate, so we struggle to say the right thing with clichés. But Jennings offers a viable option. “Better to say nothing, and offer the gift of your presence, than to utter bankrupt bromides.” Amen to that. But when we have to speak and write, don’t we owe it to our friends and loved ones to choose our words more carefully?
The world of politics also has plenty of shorthand words that offer more heat than light, a subject recently addressed in Clark Hoyt’s New York Times column, “The Public Editor.” Here the inadequate words include “Christian right,” “liberal-centrist,” “liberal,” “neoconservative,” “and even “moderate.” In our fluid world of politics, what would you call the newly minted Republican Senator Scott Brown, who was elected in “liberal” Massachusetts with Tea Party fervor, but who supports abortion rights and voted for a jobs bill that was otherwise abandoned by his party?
As Hoyt points out, “sometimes the words can be so simplistic as to be almost meaningless.”
The point, again, is that we’re all a little lazy, even our pundits. It’s just easier to grab those little nuggets from the shore and skim them across the pond. But let’s not forget that the English language is a deep pool, and we can dive down a little further when the need arises and bring up more thoughtful, descriptive words. Or we can choose to remain silent.