Catachresis Got Your Tongue? When Words Fail You

by NORMAN SIMMS June 1, 2015

Every once in a while, it is time to take stock of new words that cancel out old words and substitute hot air for old worlds of knowledge. For this is indeed a new age without memory of anything that went on before "the moment" and with no skills at thinking out problems.  Recently, for instance, on an Australian quiz show, several young people were utterly stumped by the question of which was the earliest form of engine used on railway locomotors: (a) electricity, (b) diesel, (c) steam, (d) petroleum. The host of the show almost fell off his seat, as one after the other the contestants asked "to pass", because the question was too hard. 

The next day, again on the first and supposedly most simple question, the contestant was to fill in the "quotation": "Fools rush in where XXXX fear to tread".  One young man and then one young women were utterly stumped: they had never heard of this "saying" nor could they understand what it meant when the Quiz Master, flabbergasted by their ignorance who blurted out "Don't they teach you anything at school?"-and he told them it was a line from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man and tried to convey the sense of this truism.  They had, naturally, heard of "fools" and "angels" but couldn't see what they were rushing into, or not rushing into but hanging back cautiously to assess the situation.  Well, actually the young contestants were not really sure about "angels", other than ornaments on a Christmas Tree' and, as for "fools," that was also out of their range of knowledge, except perhaps as people they didn't like and thought were idiots.  In other words, while the older men and women on the show (those over forty) could complete the quotation (although not identify its author or the name of the poem it came from) and hazard a guess about impetuousness versus patience and thinking through something before deciding on a course of action, what is at stake is both a radical break in what constitutes general knowledge, on the one hand, and, on the other, a major shift in the use of language, tone and register. 

Not only has the normal range of vocabulary changed very suddenly over the past twenty years-words and their meanings are always evolving, so runs the cliché-but the actual number of words in use has diminished, with a few vague and non-emotive terms filling in for great numbers of terms for subtleties, nuances and slight hints at delicate feelings and senses.  The difference between formal rhetoric, informal street slang, informal and intimate domestic terms, specialized technical jargons, ways to talk to elders, superiors and strangers as opposed to those younger or subordinate to oneself and close friends-virtually gone.  Or gone so far as being able to be aware of what one is doing when one opens one's mouth or puts pen to paper: worse, you no longer open your mouth but text messages or send cryptic emails, and you don't use your own hand-eye muscle coordination to inscribe letters, with the pressure of your pen, the moments of hesitation and other thoughtful indications of human thought and feeling actually visible in the epistle produced.

In classical rhetoric, there is something called catachresis (from the Greek κατάχρησις, abuse) which occurs when words and expressions are wrenched out of their proper place-where they belong by virtue of common sense, logic or scientific inquiry-and put into new situations that at first seem shocking, absurd and ridiculous.  But a catachresis happens when new kinds of experiences and new ways of thinking come into being and people find no words, images or even gestures seem appropriate or adequate to the new circumstances.  So they are forced to take dead metaphors, old words that no longer refer to anything actual, and just ordinary expressions that everyone uses but really signify nothing-and give them a new life, new meanings, and new emotional power. 

Did you ever someone say that "Something is really cool, like, and I was like freaked out, with stuff and things like that, I mean, it was really far out" and ever wondered what they were trying to say?

If that is what were (notice my archaic subjunctive voice) going on now with the change in language, then, Bravo! I would be all for it.  But unfortunately what has happened is that while experiences and circumstances have indeed been changing in the last few generations, as they always do, the changes in language, especially the spoken language and the familiar forms of written language, have not really kept up at all.  There has been a reduction in the words most people share, and because these words have to cover a multitude of sins, there is a loss of subtlety and nuance in what people say and hear or read. 

The people who have to use this new kind of discourse-what else can they use if they are not taught anything in school, and build up no body of possible expressions at various levels of intensity, sincerity or formality appropriate to various circumstances?-probably do not even realize how frustrating it is to persons who grew up before education systems collapsed and failed the pupils they were supposed to teach. 

They seem to make up for it in their ordinary lives and  relationships by loud, raucous music, hypnotic singing, drug addiction, ever more insistent sporting events, and-yes, when you get down to it, violence of all sorts against others and themselves.  One aspect of this violence, by the way, seems to be the absence of real action; rather, a retreat into lovey-dovey withdrawal from decisions taken on principles and hence both a passive acceptance of real violence (e.g., honour-murder, unnecessary famine, cruelty to children, animals and refugees) and an active trivialization of mayhem, disorder, and fanatical destruction of monuments and whole nations on the grounds of political correctness, anti-colonialism and so-called Orientalism-active because it involves refusal to defend helpless people and because it attacks in international forums the victims of aggression.  Having reduced thought to sound-bites, to the most simplistic paradigms of them/us, right/wrong, absolute perfection/failure-the new speak cannot and therefore will not make distinctions except in the most fatuous manner,

Here are a few representative types of new use words that pretend to be helpful, clarifying and communicative locutions, but merely knock out really important words:

Sample Terms

Hey: A term of greeting that stands for hello, good-day, how are you, but has no significance other than a phatic noise of mutual recognition.  Politeness and formality have, evidently, fallen off the planet (q.v.).

Multiple:  There used to be many, some, more than one, even a lot (two words) and a great deal.  Another time-serving piece of meaninglessness.

Mindfulness: Somehow in the past people got by paying attention, focusing, or meditating on things and ideas to keep their minds busy, full and happy.  The only thing surprising is that this expression seems to have some relationship to a mind. 

Partner: As distinct from a husband or wife in a marital relationship, this term stands for a live-in boy-friend or girl-friend, a long-term sleeping buddy (i.e., more than two weekends in a row).  It involves neither commitment nor obligation to the other or to any children produced or carried over from previous partnerships.

Philosophy: any opinion, having no systematic development, careful analysis, or historical basis.  It is based on feelings and intuition.

Planet: This has replaced not only world and earth, but also overtaken environment or biosphere, words that were fashionable just a few years back.  I guess it was made à la mode by the films spun off by Planet of the Apes.  Or should we now speak about our world as the "planet of the aps"?

Wellness: Instead of health or the absence of illness, there is this thing. Of course, instead of doctors practicing the art of healing or other health professionals advising and treating patients, we have some kind of New Age abomination.


Everybody can play this game.  Listen to what others are saying, glance through the newspapers, not just the news reports (supposedly objective, checked by editors), but also opinion pieces (op-ed pieces the unsolicited and the submitted and letters to the editor.  Jot down the single words, phrases and longer expressions; then try to think of other terms you would once have used; match them up and try to calculate the empty spaces, the deleterious noise created, and the misleading impression created.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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