November 7, 2012
A Proverbial Rant
. . . by Suanne Camfield
As a rule of thumb, I try not to let too many things get under my skin. But there are the occasional irritations that leave me squirming--grammatical mishaps being one.
I'm certainly not a perfect writer, so I can extend grace when people get affect and effect mixed up or can't remember if something comprises something or if it's composed of it (I'm still not sure I know the difference), or when they trip over the correct use of a word like notorious.
I do, however, cringe when someone says Barnes and Nobles. (It's Barnes and Noble--no s.) I can't understand why people aren't embarrassed when they use orientate like it's an actual word. And after seven years of living in Chicagoland, I still recoil when native Chicagoans end their sentences with with (e.g., "I'm going to the store. Want to go with?").
Topping my current list of skin-crawlingness is our culture's current obsession with the word proverbial. The viral nature of the thing kind of makes me want to scratch my eyes out. And sometimes eyes of the people who use it.
Too harsh? Well, okay yes, of course. But think of the last time you heard (or read) proverbial used. For me, in an office meeting last month: "The proverbial you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." In an article last week: "The proverbial ships passing in the night." In a book last night: "The proverbial pot calling the kettle black." In a blog last day: "The proverbial apple a day." In a book proposal last second (in the middle of writing this post no less): "The proverbial bible thumper." (That last one is so bad I'm not even sure it counts.)
Here's why it irks me so (and why I think we should stop doing it):
1. The Eleventh Rule of Writing: Omit unnecessary words. Do we think our hearers don't know that the "pot calling the kettle black" is a proverb? Do we think they actually think ships are passing in the night? Proverbs are common sayings. It's what makes them proverbs. Saying something is proverbial is akin to describing a tree as green and leafy. Qualifying a proverb by saying it's proverbial is not only unnecessary, but--no offense to the proverbial lovers--slightly insulting.
2. It's lazy writing (and speaking). On his fabulous and insightful blog Andy Unedited, IVP editorial director Andy Le Peau often identifies laziness as the culprit of poor writing. One of my favorite posts is Please Don't Use the Dictionary! in which he pleads with authors to stop defining words with definitions:
It's one of the most common and one of the dullest tools that writers or speakers pull out of their toolboxes--quoting a dictionary definition when trying to make a point. It happens every day whether it's a blogger, a teacher, a preacher or a speaker. Webster gets quoted to define some painfully ordinary word like professional or accidental or addiction.
Proverbial puts us on the same ground. In the words of Andy, "Work harder to find a more interesting way to express yourself."
3. Proverbial Wisdom Actually Exists. The centuries are full of proverbs that are rich in meaning and depth. They weave powerful stories with witty anecdotes that make us ponder our place in life differently than how we saw it before. In The Essential Commandment, Greg Ogden refers to this Hasidic saying:
Everyone must have two pockets, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, according to need. In the right pocket are to be the words: "For my sake was the world created," and in the left: "I am dust and ashes."
He uses the proverb to lead us to this paradoxical truth, "We are finite and broken people as well as those who have been redeemed to reflect the Redeemer." It's become such a strong image for my own spiritual journey that I've shared it with others and watched as the realization of being simultaneously flawed and redeemed has poured over their own life. As people who write and edit and publish, if we're going to call something proverbial, perhaps it should share this kind of wisdom.
Not sure where to start? Consider the first chapter of the proverbial book of Proverbs. Or how about just Proverbs.
These are the proverbs of Solomon, David's son, king of Israel.