Thursday, April 21, 2016

NPR's Appalling Language

Zestful Blog Post #157

On Monday (April 18, 2016) I was listening to Diane Rehm’s show on NPR while driving around to some appointments. I’m not a die-hard NPR devotee, but I do tune in sometimes. The reason I’m not a die-hard devotee to NPR is the bewildering language used by some of the guests—not so much the hosts. Diane Rehm is blameless. Diane Rehm for president.

My beef is with the guests / interviewees who torture language trying to make themselves sound more intellectual. Often, I’m sad to say, they are writers. Writers who have written books published by intellectual presses about intellectual things like social theories.

Having cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor, my anti-bullshit axe is sharp and fierce. Maybe I’m just getting older and crabbier, or maybe the NPR problem is really getting worse. I think it’s getting worse. Things were so bad Monday morning that I had to pull over not once but twice, and make notes.

A group of guests were talking about Brexit. You know, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union. The word Brexit is fine. It’s a witty shorthand that one could text to friends when messaging about world affairs.

But when one guest said, “The atmospherics of the summit will be tense,” I was like, what did she just say? Atmospherics? Why would you say that when you mean atmosphere? Oh, of course: to sound brainier! People who use words with more syllables are perceived as being more intelligent than ordinary folk. You have to listen with some alertness to notice when the extra syllables are phony.

Here’s another one from the same conversation, different guest, who was asked about reciprocity between Britain and the EU if Britain Brexits. “Well, the automaticity of that will no longer be there.” What the f*ck? Automaticity? Have you ever heard that word before? But you know exactly what the guy meant: The reciprocity would go away. But when you’re in front of a microphone, whether on the radio or a dais, air time is important. Fill it with syllables, preferably ones that can more or less be grasped by people dumber than you. Automaticity originated as a science word to describe certain functions in cells, then became, according to the Free Dictionary: “Acting or operating in a manner essentially independent of external influence or control: an automatic light switch; a budget deficit that triggered automatic ...” Automaticity is actually a perfect NPR word: It's unnecessarily complicated and not really accurate, yet it’s easy to tell what the speaker means. 

Side one of my angrily scribbled note card.

Another guest, discussing his book about the dangers global aid workers face, used the term ‘sea change,’ which bugged me, because the clearer, simpler ‘change’ would have sufficed. Sea change is a somewhat archaic term referring to the shift in one’s perceptions, mostly having to do with sense of balance, when one embarks on a long sea voyage. The movement of the sea makes for lots of vestibular input, and one feels different, and possibly out of sorts, until one adapts. MFK Fisher, by the way, wrote beautifully (and economically) about the subject in The Gastronomical Me. People now use sea change to mean a vast change. When you say sea change, you simply sound more worldly, don’t you?

The same guest said, “The safety of aid workers evolves onto the local population.” He of course should have said devolved, but he was either unsure of that, or he sensed many listeners would think devolve is incorrect in that usage. But it’s correct. This example isn’t exactly parallel to the others, but valuable nevertheless, to illustrate the deep insecurities of many NPR guests.

Same guest: “Secondly, and probably most foundationally…” Foundationally? Beautiful. So much more dolled up than basically. More syllables, more letters. Same guest: “The latter question is of sentinel importance.” Lovely! The term is completely meaningless, yet you instantly know that he meant special importance, or more probably, signal importance. But sentinel! An extra syllable! Not only that, but just the sound of it is so serious! Sentinel. Yeah, man.

Do things like this bug the same crap out of you, or am I just a bitch? Click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.


  1. No, you are far from a bitch!!! It's society's need to show off and for people to prove they are better, or at least, think they are better than everyone else. I love simple, down to earth, easy going people. I spend WAY too much time in Corporate America where everyone fights to be heard and seen, not matter how stupid they really are. I'm with ya' Sister!!!

  2. There was a TV Show in the '90s called Just Shoot Me that devoted an episode to this. In it, a fashion editor was appearing on NPR and her co-workers gave her a fake 'Word of the Day' calendar for her to prepare. During the interview, she used all kinds of odd, made-up words. It was really funny. Or at least I thought so.

  3. Thanks, Robyn! Always glad for good company along the way... And JC, I remember that show, but didn't see that episode. Gotta see if I can Hulu it or something. Thanks for the tip on that.

  4. The ponderous, the pompous and puffed up, OMG. I walked into my stable on Monday while my partner was listening to our local station interviewing some dipwad who was discoursing (gag) his way through his BS with "When my patients, ask me, Dr. What's-your-excuse for breathing, I . . . " Right then, right there, French started flying. This is why I do not listen to the F'ing so called talk wawawa, ever. Actually, believe I said something to the effect, make me listen to this crap and I'll beg you to please blow my brains out.

    The pain!

    Meanwhile every so often I use a word from the 15th C (+ or -.) When my crit partners give me crap, I simply say, use a dictionary and no, it's not freaking avant garde. It's Shakespeare or Chaucer or who's the dude who wrote about the rings of hell, yeah, that Dante. What a cutup.

    Pretense. (Growls!)

  5. I've heard it said many times and by many different people that if you can't explain something using words that a reasonably intelligent 5th grader could understand, you don't really know your subject. Made up and inappropriately used words are one indication that the speaker is trying to blow smoke up someone's skirt.

  6. Cordia and Allison, LOL and right on.

  7. This sort of thing bugs the living hell out of me. Usually I give people the benefit of the doubt when it's done verbally; some people (myself included) just aren't great at the whole talking thing, and words come out weird sometimes. Though I suspect on NPR, it is done on purpose. To me it's more egregious when done in print. Like, you had time to sit down and come up with the right word, or look it up on Either you're lazy or trying to sound intellectual, and neither is particularly endearing.

  8. Excellent point, Brooke. It's worse in print, I agree, especially if you know the writer is educated. Which brings up the whole question of education...


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