Too many clichés to shake a stick at spoil the broth

From "love" to "tragedy", so many words have lost their true meaning after years of over-abuse.

Just as Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, Arabic has more than 300 different words for sand. Now, which one of these two statements rings true?

The answer, of course, is neither. The first one is an often-repeated urban legend. The other, I'll admit, I just made up myself.

It is often said that a large arsenal of words is a sign of intelligence and a rich culture. That sadly doesn't say much for the way that much of the media has been covering the news, especially events in the Middle East. News stations long ago chose the path of appealing to the lowest common denominator, dishing out the daily servings of McNews in which words and phrases are repeated so often that they cease to have any meaning. Eventually, conjecture, hyperbole and outright propaganda are so embedded in the public psyche that they are accepted as fact.

To those masters of spin, the Israeli Defence Force, every rock-throwing child is a "terrorist", every prison wall a "security barrier", and every aid flotilla a "threat to sovereignty".

And every attack on a neighbouring country or region is simply Israel exercising its "right to defend itself". Most channels are happy to peddle such nonsense.

Similarly, "Arab Spring" is this season's word du jour. The phrase first evoked the imagery of new hope, only to give way to the obvious association with the 1968 Prague Spring, a phenomenon that can be suppressed, even crushed. Recently it has been all-too-tempting to declare the end of the spring and the advent of summer, or even winter.

But that ignores that these uprisings were unavoidable. Whatever their outcomes, they were not in vain, and to suggest so does a disservice to many brave people.

But not as much of disservice as the delusional dictators whose speeches might as well have been read from the same sheet. Can you guess which leader promised a "commitment to carry on, do my responsibility to protect the constitution, the interests of the people ... in fair and free elections that will be guaranteed with transparency and freedom"? It means nothing, so it could be anybody. It's Hosni Mubarak, but just as easily could be Bashar Al Assad.

If all else fails, leaders could always call on their trump card, the one that for years - but not any longer - could bail them out of any sticky situation: "foreign interference".

Arab youths stopped listening a long time ago, and thanks to social media now have a far stronger voice themselves. That has brought about its own problems, with commentators pointlessly arguing whether Facebook and Twitter "ignited" or merely "aided" uprisings.

Many remain sceptical of "social media", itself a phrase in danger of becoming a parody. They have given millions of people a platform to express their views, while simultaneously becoming a graveyard for proper spelling and grammar.

After a few hours reading status updates on Facebook - a "place" where we claim to have 600 "friends", when we are lucky to have six - Charles Darwin would have been scrambling to revise his theories.

Under no circumstance must anyone over the age of 15 ever use the term "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" in a post. All the time, "LOL" and its crazier cousin "LMAO" roam cyberspace laughing in our faces. As Blackadder might have said, it is an "anaspeptic", "frasmotic", even "conpunctuos" state of affairs.

It would be unfair to blame the internet for all our linguistic woes. Long before Mark Zuckerberg's eureka moment, many words had already lost their power because of collective over-abuse: words like "love", "tragedy", "cool", "always" and "never" these days can mean almost anything.

Or nothing. And what of people who insist on using "literally" in any sense except the correct one? They, literally, don't know what they're taking about.

It's going to take a paradigm shift in our thinking to rid ourselves of all these clichés. And let's hope we can do that without having to use the phrase "paradigm shift" again.

Published: August 3, 2011 04:00 AM


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