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Junk English Paperback – November 9, 2001
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"Junk English is the linguistic equivalent of junk food," says Ken Smith. "Ingest it long enough and your brain goes soft." Given the ubiquity of "junk English"--which includes pretentious, meaningless, euphemistic, and bloated language--we all likely suffer already from mushy minds. In Junk English, Smith uses real examples to illustrate 120 types of language abuse, including cheapened words (visionary, revolutionary), distraction modifiers (low, just, only), "fat-ass phrases," "free-for-all verbs," "jargon gridlock," "mirage words," "palsy-walsy pitches," "secret snob words," and "tiny type messages." If linguistic abuses were ticketable offenses, Officer Smith would fill his quota before he reached the second paragraph. While the greatest perpetrators of junk English may be business and advertising folk, we're all guilty. So take this as a reminder to say what you mean, and mean what you say, and leave the battlefield language and spiked clichés behind. --Jane Steinberg
From Publishers Weekly
If George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" were updated and expanded to address today's lexical and syntactic problems the tendency to make verbs out of nouns and nouns out of verbs, a general fondness for business-speak and verbal inflation, just to name a few it might look like Junk English. Ken Smith's (Mental Hygiene; Ken's Guide to the Bible) slim volume is a quirky, pleasingly judgmental dictionary of language crimes. From "invisible diminishers" ("virtually flawless") to technology jargon ("It is simply not natural to use feedback for opinion, [or] synthesis for combination"), Smith will delight language purists with his wit while confirming their grave assessments of contemporary speech.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Our second reaction, however, is to realize that though we may think we know our language well (and we probably do, compared to our peers), we don't know it nearly as well as we should, or as well as Ken Smith does. We'll see examples in this book of lexical misdeeds that we ourselves commit on a regular basis, and we'll fret, "How can I continue to call myself a stickler for grammar when my perspicacity is not perfect and complete?"
The third reaction, I think, is depression. Smith is certainly right about Junk English, its origins and its consequences. But who cares? Aside from those of us who pay attention (and we're a precious tiny little minority), accuracy in written and spoken English is declasse. I often feel that advertising, PR propaganda, political reportage, and corporate communications are written largely by morons for other morons, so everyone's satisfied. What is to be done? Smith isn't trying to provide a solution to our language's ills, but his focusing on the problem does raise the question.
My mild criticism of the book consists in Smith's apparent lack of patience with whimsy, colloquialism, and artistic embellishment. Sometimes, when we neglect to use the most economical or efficient word, we do so on purpose -- to use the "au courant" argot of a specific constituency, to dress up a sentence for the simple love of language, or just for fun. Junk English seems to be more about using words and phrases without a thorough understanding of their meaning or implication -- but this book occasionally steps beyond this into written inefficiency.
Writers who are concerned about getting caught themselves in the morass of Junk English, however, should keep a copy of this book around. After you finish a draft, flip through its pages and see if anything you've done is named there.
This is not a grammar book, but one which looks at current shoddy word use as a human foible: "It is sometimes innocent, sometimes lazy, sometimes well intended, but most often it is a trick we play on ourselves to make the unremarkable seem important... Junk English is the linguistic equivalent of junk food - ingest it long enough and your brain goes soft." Smith's book is a compilation of examples which he has spotted in print or broadcast, and he has obviously a good ear and eye for them; Smith admits that he uses such phrases, just as everyone does, and reading this book is an exercise in humility, for sometimes only after Smith points out a common usage does it seem junk. For instance, under the section "People Reduction," Smith points out that "people" and "person" are disappearing from usage, replaced by "individual" or "individuals." Even worse, we have become not people, but consumers: "The nearly inescapable _consumers_ has become a cold synonym for many more accurate and human terms. We are gradually being turned into creatures whose only defining characteristic is that we shop: 'Consumers should check their medicine cabinet once a year for medications that are expired or are no longer being used.'" In a section on "Free-for-all-verbs", doesn't point out that for years some people have "gifted" presents to others, but his examples go from the almost acceptable "The parents took it upon themselves to see to it that all the kids were journaling every day" to the completely horrid "We're efforting to work this out." A relatively new verb "privatize" means to make a previously governmental function into a business to make money. Everyone likes privacy, and everyone likes smaller government, so there has been a popular push to privatize, but would you not think twice before sending your child to a school run as a business to make money? It is one of the many examples of Orwellian Newspeak in the book; it would be more honest, Smith shows, to create the word "profitize."
It's a darned shame that _Junk English_ is not going to be read by those copywriters and speechwriters who are the perpetrators of so many of the abuses catalogued herein. It seems as if pomposity will always trump plainness. Nonetheless, the book is instructive, and it will put those of us who care about words on our guard. It is a deliberately short book, and so some of the atrocities that are your own pet peeves are likely to be omitted. As a picture of how we are using and misusing English at the turn of the millennium, and as an entertaining and funny look at language in need of correction, Smith's book is unique. But not very.
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