Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Handily Wonkish Rant

As Mercury turned direct after its recent retrograde period, it tickled my fancy that words (the province of Mercury, planet of communication) suddenly started coming under the microscope in Mercury's other province, the media.

I'd decided to draft a blog post on the subject of words myself, when I noticed the media pouncing on Barack Obama, because he had borrowed some of the words used in his speeches from another politician (one of many articles here). Then, hardly missing a beat, Senator Obama's wife was hauled over the coals for words she'd uttered in a speech (here).

Anyway, my wordy Mercurial ramble-cum-rant goes like this:

During the past few months I've noticed a couple of rather oddly applied words appearing with strange regularity in what I call journalist-speak. Journalists are a bit like parrots, they pick up words and expressions from each other, repeat them, ad nauseam for a while, before forgetting all about them and moving on to the next batch. This is fine, as long as the meaning of the "in-words" is clear.

"Wonk" is an example of current journalist-speak. It is being used, on occasion, to describe some politicians. In Britain (also in the USA, I'm reliably informed by my husband) "wonky" means unstable, wobbly, not reliable. I couldn't see how this definition fitted the context when I came upon the word recently in several articles. After a brief search, I discovered that "wonk" is also applied to a person who studies a subject or issue thoroughly or to excess. Some politicians can be termed "policy wonks", or have a "wonkish attitude". The two definitions of "wonk" and "wonky" no doubt have different roots, but that doesn't make things any less confusing for the reader.

Another current example of journalist-speak is the adverb "handily". For example: "he beat Clinton handily". I'd always used "handy" in a practical sense: "the table was placed in a handy position (or handily) for easy access from both entrances". Apparently its use has expanded. Winning "handily", though not hard to translate into plain English, could surely be better and more accurately expressed as winning "easily" or "with a wide margin", if that is what a writer intends to convey. Or does it perhaps mean "usefully", i.e. that it was a win which was badly needed? It's just not clear, at least not to me.

Some journalists, in an effort to be trendy, put what they see as style before clarity and accuracy. Which reminds me of a sentiment in one of Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes" comic strips:
“The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!”

End of rant.


Richard said...

* With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!” *

Yeah. Fazakerley, Twilight. This Old Brit cottoned onto that, completely - yonks & yonks ago.


Twilight said...

That's not what I've noticed, Richard! :-)

From what I've seen you attempt to penetrate the fog and fill the gaps left by other writers - and usually succeed.

More power to yer elbow!

R J Adams said...

Well, you were certainly a wonk on that subject, though you cottoned on to those journalists handily.

I've been here nearly six years and 'American' is still a foreign language to me (deep sigh).

Twilight said...

Sighing along with you, RJ.
I still can't ask for a bottle of water and be understood. My Yorkie tongue just refuses say "baddle o' waddah". :-)

Wisewebwoman said...

Ah Twilight, words and their transmutations and evolutions - one of my favourite pastimes. Yes, I've noticed this wonk business, the Anglo-Irish for wonky was "bockity" and I would much prefer, thank you very much, "Policy bockit" vs policy wonk. Has an enormous cachet, doncha think?
And 'handily' is driving me, well.....

Twilight said...

Hi Wisewebwoman

Ssshhhhhhh!! Don't let them get hold of bockity - we'll never hear the last of it! It's a deal more lyrical than wonky though.