Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Joe Queenan on Word of Mouth

Word of Mouth is a weekly programme on Radio 4 which runs in short seasonal series of four or five episodes. The highlight of the programme broadcast on 10 August 2010, about dumbing down, was an appearance by the American writer Joe Queenan. (Queenan arrives sixteen minutes in.)

Queenan was marvellously opinionated in making a strong-willed defence of the case for interesting, engaging, curious and undumbed-down language - the sort of stuff you might need to look up.

Traditionally you assumed that the writer not only knows more than the reader, but knows a lot more than the reader: that's the whole point of reading the book, so you can learn something.

Queenan also riffs expansively:

Most bad things that happen in society happen because of the influence of business. Business wants things to be simple; so they encourage people to speak this way. If you're riding on a train from Washington to New York and you listen to businessmen speak? It's excruciating. It's nothing but clich├ęs. Everything comes down to: "It is what it is". And expressions like "It is what it is" literally stop conversations dead in their tracks. If it is what it is - then what's the point of discussing what it might be?
I think that people who don't enjoy speaking, people who don't enjoy words, should just shut up.

I feel (perhaps because I agree with him) that there is an appealing truculence about Queenan's rhetoric. As the presenter of the programme, Chris Ledgard, points out: Queenan is shooting office-speak fish in a barrel, but has the grace to do it with wit and finesse.

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