The gift of blah

You've heard of the gift of Blarney or the gift of the gab.  A person with this gift can speak fluidly, eloquently, and charmingly.  Today, what we see a lot of is instead the gift of blah.

Those with the gift of blah can talk forever, about anything, and weave all the right phrases into something that looks and sounds intelligent, but the words have little meaning or originality.  If you condensed what they're saying into something meaningful, it would not amount to much, like a 500-page book that can be boiled down to a one-sentence idea.

This is what makes most news reporters, politicians, and expert interviewers sound the same.  They all have the gift of blah.  They can talk without taking a breath in long streams of phrases that everyone has heard before.  It's the kind of talk that George Orwell made fun of in his essay "Politics and the English Language."  It is characterized by stale metaphors, overused idioms, clichés, and ready-made phrases such as (Orwell's example, but still used today) the "objective consideration of contemporary phenomena."  The eloquence is parroted, and all that's left is fluidity.

Every day on news programs, in corporate offices, in the halls of academic, political, and international institutions, people with the gift of blah are speaking.  It's the way you speak when you want to sound "educated," especially when you add in some big words and popular buzzwords or jargon:  core competency, intersectionality, the new normal, or whatever.

Waiting for the inauguration to start, journalists talked of childhood memories and other ramblings, their feelings, what their fellow journalists think, blah, blah, blah — all spoken in their newscaster voices, as if whatever they were saying was deeply meaningful.  Watching President Trump leave the White House was tolerable only with the sound off.  Otherwise, it was the gift of blah.  Orwell described it perfectly in his essay:  those with the gift of blah give you "the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy[.] ... The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing the words himself."

One reason for former president Trump's popularity and unpopularity was that he did not have the gift of blah.  He did have the gift of gab, a rough New York City kind of gab, but when speaking ad lib, he did not sound like all those people in high places with the gift of blah.  He was not trying to hide what he meant by using pretentious, ready-made phrases.  It was shocking for many of those accustomed to the gift of blah, but for others, it was like hearing someone speak straight for the first time.

What harm is there in this gift of blah?  Simply, it is either meaningless speech or speech used to hide one's meaning.  The meaningless speech, as Orwell wrote, is the result of a "reduced state of consciousness ... favorable to political conformity."  As for speech used to hide its own meaning, this is done because the meaning is something many people wouldn't like.  Saying "redistribution" doesn't sound as threatening as saying we are going to take away your money and give it to other people.  "Equitable vaccine distribution" sounds nicer than saying we'll decide who gets the vaccine and when based on race.  A "pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants" sounds better than saying that people who illegally crossed U.S. borders get to become citizens the same as those who bothered to enter the U.S. legally.

The gift of blah is everywhere today.  This is why it's as important now as it was in Orwell's time, to look for the meaning behind the words of those with this gift.  Instead of nodding, mesmerized by their fluency, try to understand what that person so glibly pouring out words is actually saying.  Try to translate it into plain English, and see how it sounds.

Orwell admits in his essay that he is not himself free from the faults he criticizes.  It's hard not to fall into that flow of ready-made articulateness, repeating the phrases that give what you are saying an air of intelligence.  Anyone who has been to college learned it as the lingua franca.

The only escape is to try to speak plain English.  As Orwell wrote, this frees you "from the worst follies of orthodoxy ... and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to you."

Image via Pxhere.