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Tilting at Windmills

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April 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SMART?....I would like to propose an indefinite moratorium on the lazy overuse of the word "smart" to describe a piece of journalism. As in, for example, "Laura Rozen has a smart piece in Mother Jones today about skullduggery in Iraqi Kurdistan." I've gotten pretty tired of it. Anybody with me?

By the way, Laura does have piece in Mother Jones today about skullduggery in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now how can I describe it? She herself calls it "odd, unusual, but kind of revealing," so how about that? Check it out.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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Comments

I've never noticed that before. Lucky me!

Now, can we also ban "wake-up call" from modern usage?

Posted by: craigie on April 12, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Can we stop saying "wildly unpopular" and "vanishingly unlikely" too?

Posted by: T on April 12, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

What, did you run out of important things to talk about?

Posted by: ...the hell? on April 12, 2007 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

I see that "at the end of the day" is finally dying the death it deserves.

Posted by: KevinB on April 12, 2007 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

I recall a 'smart' piece, cover story in MoJo about 2000 about the threat of terrorism being a bogus reason for financial waste.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O in 08! on April 12, 2007 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

Slow news day, Kevin?

All those liberal conspiracies and tempests in tea pots about alleged goverment misdeeds must be collapsing under their own weight

Posted by: Al on April 12, 2007 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

I want to see all these phrases done away with too:

Think outside the box.
Agree to disagree.
Think _______? Think again.
Some people say...

Posted by: Maldoror on April 12, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Also get rid of "slow news day?"

Posted by: Maldoror on April 12, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps while purging "smart" with reference to reporting you can also purge the use of "gate" as the tail of the branding for every scandal that comes to light, such as "purgegate".

Posted by: Chris Brown on April 12, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

A few other ban-ables:

Describing things as "staggering," "stunning" or
"breathtaking." No, actually, they're not.

Idiot TV journalists saying "literally" when they mean "figuratively." They all went to college. Perhaps they could speak English like they care about the meaning of words?

"I like Thing A. Thing B? Not so much." Saying this doesn't make you sound like some sassy smart alec, it makes you sound like someone who picks up catchphrases from watching TV commercials.

Posted by: Old Hat on April 12, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

every hack phrase listed so far in this thread is much worse than "smart piece".

although, I would miss "gate" as scandal suffix.

Posted by: shams on April 12, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Old Hat, did you know that people have been using "literally" to mean "figuratively" since at least the 18th century? Mind-blowing, isn't it. I learned that recently. It literally blew my mind.

Posted by: shams on April 12, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

My petpeeve is "What part of ____ don't you understand?"

Posted by: Matt on April 12, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Also, describing people with supposedly above-average intellectual acumen as "scary smart." Katie Couric, these are words hack writers in Seventeen Magazine use to describe pop stars who can string a coherent sentence together, not something to describe, say, a Secretary of State. Ban! Ban! Ban!

Posted by: Old Hat on April 12, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

I like "smart". It's a very concise way of saying that you think the article is well-reasoned and has something new to say. All in a single syllable. So it's used a lot. So what? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elegant_variation.

Posted by: Crust on April 12, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Old Hat, did you know that people have been using "literally" to mean "figuratively" since at least the 18th century? Mind-blowing, isn't it. I learned that recently. It literally blew my mind.

It still drives me nuts and makes me very sad, like the time my house burned down and my dreams literally went up in flames (cut to B-roll footage of a house burning down).

Posted by: Old Hat on April 12, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

I think that's a really smart idea.

(Sorry, but somebody had to say it.)

Posted by: bleh on April 12, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

let's also dispatch forever:

In this day and age...
At the end of the day...

Posted by: dave on April 12, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

I Don't Disagree with You!

Posted by: skibumlee on April 12, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK
Idiot TV journalists saying "literally" when they mean "figuratively."

They aren't saying "literally" when they mean "figuratively". They using "literally" itself figuratively (specifically, they are using it as a metaphorical intensifier to some other term used metaphorically).

There is a difference between using the term figuratively and using it to mean "figuratively".

Posted by: cmdicely on April 12, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

Hey Old Hat,
How about "Virtually went up in flames"

does that mean it happened in Virtual Reality?

Posted by: skibumlee on April 12, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I dunno, Kevin. Maybe if we had more smart reporting you'd have more of a point.

Posted by: Gregory on April 12, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

What?

Posted by: JeffII on April 12, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with all of the ban-ables above. Let me add one of my great frustrations: the use of "myself" when "me" or "I" would be appropriate.

Typically, the word "myself" is only appropriate when you have referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. What makes this especially annoying is that people use "myself" when they are trying to sound more pretentious. I guess we all got beaten down as youths for our overuse of "me"--and this is the result.

Posted by: Swinty on April 12, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I guess it deserves a lexiconic burial because I have heard it used in describing conservative commentators. "Progressive and thoughtful" will do!

Posted by: Sparko on April 12, 2007 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

The fate of all mankind,I think, is in the hands of fools. Confusion will be my epitaph.

K. Crimson.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O in 08! on April 12, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

"Good to go."

Ban it, please. Roger, go at throttle up...

Posted by: JM on April 12, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

The modalities of the current temporal trends in the journalistic enterprise have led to the evolution and whole-sale acceptance of metrics that engender the utilization of verbal constructs that do not lend themselves to easy categorization.

Posted by: gregor on April 12, 2007 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

I don't mind "smart." I HATE "to be sure." What's wrong with "Of course" or "However"?

Does anyone actually use the phrase "to be sure" outside of a newspaper / magazine article?

Posted by: Jeff on April 12, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

cmd: specifically, they are using it as a metaphorical intensifier

Really?

The misuse of "literally" grates on me too. I've sometimes wondered if there was a similar battle over the word "really" before it became an intensifier as well. Apparently some words are simply used like spices, even after they lose their saltiness. It's just so f**king stupid.


Posted by: swinty on April 12, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

some people say thinking outside the box is literally scary smart, but at the end of the day it's virtually a wake-up call for the new paradigm. In this day and age it's vanishingly unlikely that we can agree to disagree.

What part of new paradigm do you not understand?

Posted by: thersites on April 12, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Try to shift my paradigm before I've had my third cuppa, and I'll core your competencies.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on April 12, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

All make strong cases, but if I were dictator, I would ban the One. Word. Sentence. I think it has long since outlived it's shelf-life.

Kevin is an especially egregious violator.

Posted by: Homer on April 12, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

I should proofread. I meant "its".

Posted by: Homer on April 12, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

I would like to propose an indefinite moratorium on the lazy overuse of the phrase "Color me _[adjective]_".
Thankfully, it's been a few whole days now since I last saw Kevin use it; maybe he's seen the (pure, white, uncolored) light.

Posted by: Allen K. on April 12, 2007 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

We could revert to 'smart' meaning 'fashionable', as in the 'Smart Set'. P.G. Wodehouse always used 'Smart Young Things' to convey that the persons so designated were anything but intellectual.

He also used 'financier' as a synonym for 'not yet indicted for fraud'.

That seems in any case what's being conveyed. Not 'well reasoned'. Not 'well written'. Not 'intelligent'.

"Smart' seems to have devolved into meaning 'clever'.


'A mere 300,000 people had incomes equal to the total income of the bottom earning half of the entire population. That's 150 million people. Put another way, those 300,000 had incomes 440 times greater than the average income in the United States. Stated yet another way, the golden 300,000 sopped up more than 20 percent of all incomes.' - Nicholas von Hoffman

Posted by: MsNThrope on April 12, 2007 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

I would like to throw a certain expression under the bus.

Posted by: sean on April 12, 2007 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Smart" is too clever by half...

And "too clever by half" isn't at all smart.

Posted by: ROTFLMLiberalAO on April 12, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

I kinda want to see "AH Kevin" banished.

Posted by: john john on April 12, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Interesting article on the Kurds and their attempt at surviving in the hostile environment in whcih they must live. I guess you gotta do what you gotta do in order to survive.

Posted by: Berlins on April 12, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I stopped using the words get or got. At first you really have to think to find better replacements, but then you start using words like receive and obtain and many others. It really improves one's vocabulary.

Posted by: Brojo on April 12, 2007 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

I like smart journalism. Thats why I read the comments here at this political minerals webpage.

Love it or leave it you Drumstick

Posted by: professor rat on April 12, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I know cliché like the back of my hand.

Posted by: grape_crush on April 12, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

I think saying something is "smart" just means that some thought went into it, as opposed to just recycling talking points.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on April 12, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

More bannables:

[anything egbert spouts]

Posted by: egbert on April 12, 2007 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

More to the point, I say we limit use of "smart" to describe fashionable attire -- my, what a smart tie; goodness, what a smart ensemble. It sounds very _Thin Man_/bring me a Manhattan. Much better than referring to anything journalists produce as smart intelligent or even, 99 times out of a hundred, sensible.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on April 12, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

In addition to using "literally" to mean "figurative", my pet peeve is when people use "ironic" to mean everything from "interesting" to "unexpected" to "coincidental" to "serendipity" -- almost anything but "ironic". My guess is that they think it makes them look smart to use the word. I blame Alanis Morisette.

Posted by: Disputo on April 12, 2007 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Starting with "frankly" and "to be honest."

Course, it's a good indication that what's to follow will likely be the opposite.

Posted by: es on April 12, 2007 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Can we ban "Bring it On"? And the White House chimp that said it?

Posted by: ckelly on April 12, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Smart-gate, which I believe has been mentioned.

How about "think piece"? Look, if you're not challenging the audience to think you are either:

A. writing hard, breaking news
B. over-slanted in your bias
C. wasting space

Posted by: Kenny on April 12, 2007 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

The one that drives me up the metaphorical wall is the abuse of the term "million-and-a-half" (and increasingly "billion-and-a-half" and "trillion-and-a-half").

A million-and-a-half dollars is $1,000,000.50, not $1,500,000. $1,500,000 is "one-and-a-half" million dollars.

It's not that complicated, but I don't remember the last time I've heard anyone get it right. News reports always use million-and-a-half, as do the presumably literate talking heads. This is just wrong, but it's as common as "nucular".

My dream is to see what happens when someone actually needs to say $1,000,000.50.

aa

Posted by: aaron aardvark on April 12, 2007 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. That was such a good post.

Posted by: nivra on April 12, 2007 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

the phrase "blood and treasure" (specifically the "treasure" part) makes me cringe. i have been hearing it more frequently lately and just can't stand it.

Posted by: matt on April 12, 2007 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

Politicians should quit "stepping down" and start getting "run off".
More banned 'stepping': No "stepping up to the plate".
And we have hailed quite enough Marys.

Posted by: Malcolm on April 12, 2007 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK

thersites at 1:34 wins the big prize.

Also, I hate the expression "going forward," as in "going forward, we expect to make a lot of money."

Why is that as soon as people put on ties, their language becomes an impenetrable, pretentious mess?

Posted by: craigie on April 12, 2007 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK
A million-and-a-half dollars is $1,000,000.50, not $1,500,000.

Well, no. "One-million-and-one-half dollars" is $1,000,000.50. The number "one" and the indefinite article "a", while they are interchangeable in some contexts, are not interchangeable in the context to which you are referring; "a" is not a number.

News reports always use million-and-a-half, as do the presumably literate talking heads.

Yes, they consistently use "a million and a half". They equally consistently do not use "one million and a half", "one million and one half", or "two [or more] million and a half". This consistency is not do to ignorance, or to bizarre confluence of errors.

This is just wrong, but it's as common as "nucular".

It is, IME, far more common than "nucular", and it quite likely is so because it is not wrong.

My dream is to see what happens when someone actually needs to say $1,000,000.50.

Usually, they say "One million dollars and fifty cents." Using the indefinite article rather than a number (like "one") is generally not something one does when the point is precision, though when an exact figure happens to round to a neat number, the usage may coincide with precision.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 12, 2007 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

How about (your noun here)palooza?

Posted by: JeffII on April 12, 2007 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

I hate the overuse and subsequent demeaning of the word "genius" to describe people who are, really, just really talented.

"Prince is a genius."
"This director is a genius."

No, Mozard was a genius. Jimi Hendrix was a genius. Your talented entertainer is just that.

Posted by: Boorring on April 12, 2007 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

Boorring reminds me of another pet-peeve -- the dumbing down of the word "hero".

Sports celebs are "heros". A good teacher is a "hero". Doctors are "heros".

I prefer to reserve "hero" for someone who has risked his or her life to save others.

Posted by: Disputo on April 12, 2007 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Norman is smart.

Just wanted to get that in there before the moratorium starts.

Posted by: NSA Mole on April 12, 2007 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely: Well, no. "One-million-and-one-half dollars" is $1,000,000.50. The number "one" and the indefinite article "a", while they are interchangeable in some contexts, are not interchangeable in the context to which you are referring; "a" is not a number.

Whatever. I have a dollar. I also have one dollar.

Yes, they consistently use "a million and a half". They equally consistently do not use "one million and a half", "one million and one half", or "two [or more] million and a half". This consistency is not do to ignorance, or to bizarre confluence of errors... It is, IME, far more common than "nucular", and it quite likely is so because it is not wrong.

Huh?

It seems that if "one million and a half" is okay, then "two million and a half" is also acceptable. But no one ever says "two million and a half dollars" unless they mean $2,000,000.50.

Usually, they say "One million dollars and fifty cents." Using the indefinite article rather than a number (like "one") is generally not something one does when the point is precision, though when an exact figure happens to round to a neat number, the usage may coincide with precision.

Wow, you're really missing the point. It's not about currency. What if you're talking about something that doesn't have a common word for "half of". Like acres, as in "a million and a half acres were burned in the fire". You can't get a way with saying "a million acres and 21,780 square feet were burned in the fire". Admittedly, no one is likely to be concerned with one half are out of a million, but that's not the point. It's a matter of consistent, logical usage.

So why doesn't anyone say "hundred and a half" when they're talking about 150? A hundred and a half protesters took part in the demonstration? I don't think so.

aa

Posted by: aaron aardvark on April 12, 2007 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

I'll stop using 'smart' if everyone will lay off 'nice'. If I hear about another 'nice' wine I'm going to smack someone.

ASAP
and
best practice
can also go.

Posted by: Not tonight on April 12, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

Bipartisan

Posted by: Brojo on April 12, 2007 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

Disputo, you're my hero.

And I just wanted to mention that my old Impala had a paradigm shifter on the floor.

Posted by: thersites on April 12, 2007 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK
It seems that if "one million and a half" is okay, then "two million and a half" is also acceptable.

I never said "one million and a half" was acceptable for 1,500,000.

I said "a million and a half" was, and I thought I made clear that "one million and a half" wasn't.

"Two" and "one" are both numbers.

Wow, you're really missing the point. It's not about currency.

Wow, you're really missing my point, which wasn't about currency. Had you example not been currency, I would have said "...they usually say one-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-point-five." I used currency because it was your example, not because it was central to the point.

What if you're talking about something that doesn't have a common word for "half of". Like acres, as in "a million and a half acres were burned in the fire".

In the cases in spoken language where precision on that degree is called for, the usual form is something like that noted above, rather than the (also correct) alternative of "one million and one-half".


Admittedly, no one is likely to be concerned with one half are out of a million, but that's not the point.

Well, actually, it is the point, as language is defined by usage (outside of, e.g., France), and usage follows the need for communication.

It's a matter of consistent, logical usage.

The usage is, as you yourself noted, extremely consistent. It may not seem intuitive to you, but it does to lots of other people.

So why doesn't anyone say "hundred and a half" when they're talking about 150?

Much the same reason noone writes 1.5 hundred when they are talking about 150, but people write 1.5 million when talking about 1,500,000.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 12, 2007 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

I'm willing to make an exception for the use of the word "hero" when applied to me.

Posted by: Disputo on April 12, 2007 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

Leader X: "I'm not going to answer hypotheticals...."

no, they are called contingencies, not hypotheticals.

Posted by: absent observer on April 12, 2007 at 11:41 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I'm tired of "vibrant." And "sleepy little towns." And "the explosion rocked." (Rock on, say I!) And "frankly," which is apparently what Newt Gingrich always says before extruding a lie. And Republicans with a first initial who choose to go by their middle names. (E. Howard Hunt, I. "Lewis" Libby, etc etc)

Don't get me started on "heroes." These days, to be a hero, all you need to do is get sick. You're a "hero" from that point on, even after your death. The fearless act of not dying at that particular moment is dignified as "fighting."

Okay, I've gone from cranky to mean-spirited. Sorry. I'll stop now.

Posted by: Zandru on April 13, 2007 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

How about banishing "Wickedly Funny" from book dust jacket blurbs?

Posted by: Mike on April 13, 2007 at 1:27 AM | PERMALINK

Unless the speaker happens to be English, "spot on" is annoying as hell.

Posted by: Winda Warren Terra on April 13, 2007 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

"Smart" annoys you? Good God, how about "snark" and "smackdown."

Posted by: Gary Sugar on April 13, 2007 at 7:27 AM | PERMALINK

Awesome thread, Kevin, simply Awesome.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on April 13, 2007 at 9:37 AM | PERMALINK

Winda Warren Terra,

Think many Aussies might disagree.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on April 13, 2007 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Mozard ??

Wolfgang wept.

Posted by: MsNThrope on April 13, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

I blame George Clooney. He started it.

Posted by: CalD on April 15, 2007 at 1:21 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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