Notes from Underground


An unhappy camper in a world of hurt

Grow this!



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What are we to make of the growing trend toward treating intransitive verbs transitively?

Pay attention and you'll notice that the past five years or so have seen a burgeoning of this odious linguistic habit, particularly among public officials and PR types trying to sound smart.

The most frequent one we hear, of course, is "grow." Usually it takes a cash-oriented meaning, as in, "We want to grow the economy" or, "I'll help you grow your money" or, "With these simple principles in mind, you can grow your business." Other examples I've heard are "evolve" ("We have evolved the system to make it more user-friendly"), "flow" ("The design of the new stadium enables us to flow the crowd to the exits following the event without any danger of anyone getting trampled"), and "mature" ("After we mature the program and iron out the kinks, it should be ready to be put on the market").

What is amazing is that all of these pompous speakers seem convinced of their brilliance or at least the brilliance of the entity they represent, be it governmental or corporate, when they actually just sound like doofuses. They present their ideas as though they are thrilling and unique breakthroughs, but they sound as though they've read from the same script as the doofus hawking a different product at a different news conference in a room across town. And they are either too stupid or too arrogant to think we won't notice what gutless clones they are.

There is nothing new, of course, in the craven conformism that such behavior demonstrates. People are always using the annoying catch phrases and slogans that are popular at a given time, thinking that saying exactly what every other dunderhead on Earth is saying means that one is really clever. I recall, without much fondness, wildly popular phrases of the recent past, including "Let's not go there," "It's all that," and "not!" (as in, "I really think you're great ... not!"), as well as the latter's earlier, equally obnoxious incarnation, "Psyche!"

Still, as wearing as those pseudo-witticisms of hoi polloi can be, I find the technocratic lingo of the elite, exemplified in this practice of "transitivizing," to be positively infuriating.

Part of my problem, I suppose, stems from an awareness that I am being sold a bill of goods by smarmy, insincere people whose ultimate aim is to gain power over me, or at the very least enrich themselves at my expense by playing me for a sucker. In this way, the "transitivizing" habit is of a piece with the unctuous tactics of many a sleazy salesman or politician.

Still, something about the trend bothers me on a deeper level — dare I say, an Orwellian level. As Orwell himself pointed out in his seminal essay "Politics and the English Language," the warping of the plain meaning of words always has a sinister effect, not merely on language, but on culture and, by extension, politics. Mess with words and you mess with people's ability to think clearly. Before you know it, they'll be learning that two and two can equal five, and that freedom is slavery. (And with crackpot new math being taught in schools and a police state being mounted as an effort to defend "freedom," 1984 really doesn't seem that far away.)

The practice of transitivizing seems to strike at the very root of plain meaning. We don't "grow" our money, our money grows (provided we invest prudently). The economy, likewise, grows when there is no interference from the state or other obtrusive agencies; while individual efforts may in some small way help the economy to grow, none of us are actually "growing" the economy. Likewise, we can't "evolve" things; things that evolve by definition change absent our efforts.

In short, transitivizing gives the illusion of power when no power exists. Moreover, it is an effort to bamboozle others into believing that business and government have godlike powers of creation ex nihilo. Intransitive verbs describe phenomena that just happen; the cause of such events is beyond our understanding, much less our control. The folly of modernity has always been the attempt to divinize man and make him master over nature, when he is actually as much a part of nature as the rest of the universe. The practice of using intransitive verbs transitively is a microcosm of modernity in general.

To return to the lingo of hoi polloi, perhaps the best rejoinder to declarations about "growing" the economy would be to defiantly grab a certain one of our nether regions and say, "grow this!" A vulgar gesture, to be sure; but vulgarity is preferable to blasphemy.

July 17, 2004

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