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Platitudes revisited

In to the Wind

December 19, 2012
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

It's entirely possible your weekly columnist overanalyzes the vernacular. Certain abstractions delight more than they should. Platitudes, idioms, and thought-terminating clichs humor me sometimes to distraction.

Much of our language, once analyzed, is trite, meaningless and biased.

Certain platitudes come up in conversation at our house.

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For instance, let's say there are only two pieces of cake left, and only one is a coveted edge piece, the person receiving the middle piece might protest. As a retort, they may be told in a matter of fact manner, "you get what you get!" Many times I've only gotten what I've gotten, not what I've wanted. Expectations are only one path to reality.

In this example, the retort is a platitude, or a trite, meaningless statement spoken as if it were significant and original, when in fact it's neither.

It was Thornton Wilder who claimed, "Literature is the orchestration of platitudes." That claim makes me smile.

"In modern life nothing produces such an effect as a good platitude. It makes the whole world kin," was penned by Oscar Wilde.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Wilde died in 1900.

"Familiarity breeds contempt," is an idiom which may be apt here. Especially when you consider your weekly columnist is apt to posit details of a recent surgery in this space. By the way, I am recovering nicely. I will be back to my old self soon; I hope.

"Time heals all wounds." I've heard it, I've used it, and do believe it is trite. While not being a particularly vindictive sort, I think it is sort of entertaining when this particular platitude is bastardized into another one, perhaps more thought provoking, "Time wounds all heels."

"If you knew what I knew, you'd think the same!" Yawn. This one, as well as being trite, exhibits, in my mind, a certain brash egotism. And if they only knew what I was thinking, they'd be clasping their throats in a defensive posture.

"You can tell a lot about a person by watching their hands." This one actually has some merit in my estimation. If mine are approaching your face, it's a pretty good sign I'm pissed.

This one has peeved me for a while, "Failure is not an option." It is in the same league as, "Work hard; play hard." Any of these platitudes sounding like they came from a corporate motivational seminar give me pause. Yes, failure does happen. I happen to know this from personal experience. As far as working hard and playing hard, I'd much rather concentrate on the latter.

Many platitudes have found there way into the advertising vernacular. One footwear manufacturer uses the platitude "Just do it." That one has always irritated me. Since I've never been one to just do it without a great deal of thought and planning, "Just do it" is unsettling and seems like a brainless plan to me.

Buzzwords are a close cousin to platitudes. Many buzzwords, after usage for a few years become part of our vernacular and in fact are included in new versions of dictionaries; usually the Oxford English Dictionary is the first.

You know, I don't think I've ever owned an Oxford Dictionary. In fact, having access to the Internet, my set of encyclopedias and dictionaries are getting a little "long in the tooth."

I just went and fetched the authoritative dictionary in our house. It is the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. It is neither new, nor authoritative at this point in time, with a copyright date of 1973, there has been "a lot of water under the bridge," and words added that are in common usage.

That particular dictionary isn't even useful any more while playing Scrabble, which is a common pastime in our house. But, like I said, you don't even need a printed copy anymore. With wireless Internet available at our house, a laptop computer becomes "the authoritative reference" when words played are contested.

Sustainability is one of the new buzzwords to make it into the Oxford Dictionary. Sustainable agriculture is an adaptation of the term.

The first person I ever heard use the term was Toledo Farmers Market Manager Dawn Troutner. I heard her use the term and had to have her define it for me. At that point, it became part of my personal vernacular.

Sustainable agriculture embraces the idea that intelligent farming practices can satisfy human food needs while enhancing environmental quality and the natural resource base by making efficient use nonrenewable resources while integrating natural biological cycles and controls. Also, in order to apply to the term, farming operations must sustain the economic viability of the operators while enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society in general.

Many times technology drives our vernacular. Before the introduction of the Apple IPod, we didn't know how to use the buzzword Podcast, but now it's in the Oxford Dictionary.

A podcast is a pre-recorded audio program posted to a website available for download. People can listen to speeches, newscasts, educational content and many other things via a podcast.

As an aside, the word "podcast" is flagged as misspelled by the dictionary in my aging word processor.

What is my favorite platitude? "No good deed goes unpunished." Of course it is patently untrue, but the imagery it evokes while contemplating this certain cause and effect can be mildly satisfying.

Is it any wonder the English language is hard to master? I've been trying all my life!

Until next time-

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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