16 February 2009

Arguably Consummate

I have been surprised lately to notice two words popping up endlessly, each in two very different contexts.

The first appears in news stories of one kind or another. That word is “arguably.” And, arguably, the word is journalism’s mitigator-of-choice these days. Just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself that I have been seeing the word so often, and to soothe my curiosity, I did a Google News search, which came back with more than 17,000 hits. That’s 17,000 current news articles that use the word in the text or the headline, some examples of which are:

- Tour of California arguably best field assembled in US

- In Gingrich Mold, a New Voice for Solid Republican Resistance (“The Republican Party is arguably weaker today than it was in 1993...”)

- Mortgage Subsidies: Arguably Useless, Likely Expensive

- Students paying more, arguably getting less

- A 40-Year Wish List (“... airports and clean water projects that are arguably worthwhile priorities.”)

Arguably, in a 24/7 news cycle environment, when things keep shifting and a reporter doesn’t have time to nail down whether something might really be what they think it is (or want it to be), it winds up existing in a state of arguability. Actually, I would argue that the preceding sentence is true, without a doubt.

Perhaps using “arguably” is easier than writing a correction for a mistake after the fact, or another seemingly clever way of sidestepping the phrase “I think” as a qualifier for a thought. But it is overused. It is also unhelpful for the reader, especially since the word occurs in many articles purporting to be “analysis.” While analysis should not automatically imply certainty, if one is reading a publication for its expert opinion, and even the experts are constantly hedging on their opinion, well, it devalues the whole construct. After all, opinion is, by definition, arguable.

So it just seems consummately lazy. Which leads me to my next word: consummate.

As in: so-and-so “is a consummate professional,” or a “consummate” networker, etc. The word keeps appearing in the so-called “recommendations” for other people that pass by my eyes on the business networking site LinkedIn.com. I do not object to the word per se; rather, as with “arguably,” it is the overuse of the word that gives me pause, because it simply is not realistic that everyone is the best, an expression of perfection, at what they do. Instead, it feels like a lazy word: a way of offering high praise in what feels like grandiose terms, and avoiding the nitty gritty challenge of choosing one’s words carefully. After all, one can be very professional and still have weaknesses; most of us do.

Indeed, such weaknesses are themselves arguably the consummate expression of our humanity.



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