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America's Common Tongue

We're so democratic that most of us fall into a well of weary words. But, hey, it's a free country. At the end of the day, we, like, you know, sound pretty much alike.

October 19, 2003

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that cliches, malapropisms, tired comparisons, withered words, pale platitudes and grammatical gimmicks -- you know, like, you know -- are congregating in English like birds of a feather, so to speak.

Thank goodness for Robert Hartwell Fiske, who must be really educated because he uses a middle name but is neither Miss America nor a death row inmate. He's editor of "The Dimwit's Dictionary: 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them." Unbeknown to many, he's collecting all of the above for a new edition, literally.

That'll be the best thing since sliced bread. And if all goes as planned, he could take language to the next level, if you will.

Cher aside, Americans cherish their individual right to dress just like everyone else or just like everyone else who's trying to dress differently. So it probably shouldn't knock our socks off that we also end up talking alike, automatically falling into fatigued phrases, weary words and cliches displaying a keen grasp of the obvious.

Hey, it's a free country. At the end of the day, we end up sounding alike, if you know what we mean.

Bottom line, there are no words to describe how ordinary we can sound without thinking. Has anyone ever not been as cool as a cucumber? As hungry as a horse, as busy as a beaver and not seen a window of opportunity or light at the end of the tunnel? (By the way, where else would it be?) Not to mention stepping up to the plate when battle lines are drawn. Has there ever been a nonegregious error, an indelicate balance, unvaluable asset, distant ally, an unemotional roller coaster or a first nail in a coffin? And, no offense, how much does an arm and a leg cost anyway?

Make no mistake about it, the fact of the matter is, frankly speaking, in these troubled, image-conscious, youth-oriented, video-attuned times, listeners draw conclusions.

Not in a million years could Fiske imagine how predictable, dull, lazy and dimwitted we could become in our modern conversational fog. It endangers democratic discernment because we stop paying attention or even listening. If it's all the same to you, it's all the same to everyone. But what's done is done. That's water over the dam and under the bridge.

Fiske, who's once again celebrating being 39 years young, has given the best years of his life to capturing rancid rhetoric without shooting himself in the foot. Is there anything one person can do? You bet your life. Actions speak louder than words. Nominate the creme de la creme of dimwit candidates at: contest.html.

Remember, it's a jungle out there. What goes around comes around. The meek shall inherit the Earth (though not much of it west of the Mississippi). And the sooner the better.

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