Chattering Class

by E.J. Dionne Jr.

Now that the election is over, how much will we miss the words that were thrown at us every day during the contest? In many cases, not much. We won't miss whatever, character issue, bridge to the 21st century, risky scheme, blow a hole in the deficit or keep more of your own money. On the other hand, are these phrases any worse than a chicken in every pot, morning in America or missile gap? It's fun to blow a hole in bad usage; it gives us squalid pleasure. As Guy Molyneux, a Washington-based polltaker, was saying recently, "Now you know why political consultants so much enjoy negative campaigning."

It's great fun deconstructing language you can't stand, but there are also some fine words out there. So in keeping with the spirit of civility that is supposed to follow the end of a free election, let us now praise famous words. Let's go positive. Or, to be more honest, let's go the modified, limited positive route.

In this campaign, there were occasional breaths of fresh air, even flashes of brilliance. For example, Paul Gigot in the Wall Street Journal referred to the rather uplifting series of debates between John Kerry and William Weld in Massachusetts as "a garden in the skunk party of this election year." This is a marvelous coinage because it is part of a grand tradition wherein a cliche is turned around and made fresh. This recalls the occasion when then-New York Mayor John Lindsay disagreed publicly on an issue with his wife, Mary, and said: "Bedfellows make strange politics." And when Winston Churchill referred to an adversary as "a sheep in sheep's clothing." And when an Associated Press editor advised all hands worldwide, "Avoid cliches like the plague." (Not to mention an editor of mine who said, "I read your story; the pictures are great.")

Take, as another example, the comedian Fred Allen's observation (sent in by Howard Ledder of Bowie) that network vice presidents exist to make molehills out of mountains. Or the idea that a beloved figure is gone but not forgotten: Turn that inside out and you get one of the better insults ever invented, forgotten but not gone. We sometimes say of a uniquely gifted person, They broke the mold after they made him. My editor claims to know several people who fit the alternative: They broke the mold before they made him .

Then there are words that annoy some but please others. Ramesh Ponnuru, a reporter for the National Review, wrote recently to object to cheesy, which seems to be overtaking brie-and-white-wine as an adjective. (On the Web, you can find something called the Cheesy home page, which invites us to "sail the seas of cheese." This site is purportedly run by a guy named Ram Samudrala of Rockville.) Mr. Ponnuru wisely exempts from his criticism a recent use of the word in a review of "Quattro Formaggi," a CD by Keanu Reeves's band, Dogstar ("They were clearly asking for it"), but he takes journalists Joe Klein and Howard Kurtz to task for using "cheesy" in their campaign coverage.

Now Mr. Ponnuru makes a good case and is entitled to his opinion. But I like "cheesy," which, in the sense of "inadequate" or "poor," dates to the '30s. Not that I have anything against cheese or cheese manufacturers. I simply like all efforts to restore good old words that have been out of use for so long that they seem keen or nifty when you run across them.

Still, there is ample room in a free society for complaint. Going positive all the time can get tiresome. A recent Chattering Class lecture on adverbs called forth a comforting outpouring. It turns out that I was not alone in having an adverb problem. Gregg Rich of Fairfax objected strongly to the casual use of probably. The word, he says, is used "when someone knows he is going to do something but doesn't want anyone to think he has made up his mind" or "when someone knows he is not going to do something but wants someone to think he is going to do it." As in: "When are you going to clean out the garage?" "I'll probably do it next weekend." As Mr. Rich adds, "Yeah, right."

Aryeh Koenigsberg of Lod, Israel, writes to complain about the uselessness of the intensifier very and recalls that Mark Twain once suggested that "writers should substitute the word `damn' for every occurrence of `very,' " on the ground that their copy editors would cut the "damns" and leave the copy as it should be.

Damn right. And by the way, is that phrase a case of going positive or going negative?

Ram Samudrala ||