The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)



Matthew Walther

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

Bernie Sanders Blasts Greece’s Creditors,” reads a headline at the Huffington Post. At Reuters: “Republican presidential hopeful Rubio blasts Iran deal.” “McConnell refuses to blast fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul,” CNN tells us. (Senator Paul is not so courteous—Google autocompletes “Rand Paul blasts” with “John McCain,” “Hillary Clinton,” “Dick Cheney,” and “Ted Nugent.”)

But blast me no blasts, please. It is such an ugly word. Garish and offensive, too. I am so sick of seeing it that I am thinking of giving up the news.

Before administering the last rites customary for mortally abused words, it is worth acknowledging the distinguished past of blast. In Chaucer’s House of Fame (c. 1380), the narrator finds himself atop a hill where, at the request of Lady Fame, the North Wind alternately blows respect and ignominy at passersby with a rather sinister-sounding musical instrument:

“Thow Eolus,
Herestow not what they prayen us?”
“Madame, yis, ful wel,” quod he,
“And I wil trumpen it, parde!”
And tok his blake trumpe faste,
And gan to puffen and to blaste.

Transposed into a modern headline as “North Wind Blasts,” Chaucer’s use of the word makes lyrical and lexical sense. By contrast, blast in the sense of “to criticize” has no entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. “To din or denounce by trumpeting,” like Chaucer’s Aeolus, is the closest one comes.

But journalism is seldom heedful of careful usage. When Senator X blasts the administration at a press conference, and the administration blasts right back at a briefing the next day, and Senator X ripostes with yet another blast at the misleading nature of the response—it is all reported with an air of breathless importance. It is hard not to identify with Chaucer’s melancholy pilgrim.

Thirty years ago, Senator X’s blasts, if they were recorded at all, might have made their way into the penultimate paragraph of a write-up on page A10 of one our national newspapers. Now, they are stories in their own right, rushed online as quickly as they can be assembled. As details in longer pieces, such “blasts” could serve to provide some color. But when they are expected to stand on their own, headline, lead, and all, their banality becomes evident—especially when scrupulous editors see “critics blasted” and realize that they would only be making the story more ridiculous by changing “blasted” to “criticized.”

Part of the trouble with blast is simply that it is journalese, that would-be pidgin of false titles (“Author A. N. Wilson”), attributive nouns (“White House source” instead of “source close to the White House”), corny verbs (“boost”), abbreviations (“spox”), and acronyms (“SCOTUS”) that everyone can read but no one save on-air news anchors has ever been known to speak.

Journalese is ugly, of course, and repetitive, and, in its present form, almost risibly at odds with the historical norms of English usage and syntax. But it is also serviceable and, when political reporters are working frantically to meet deadlines and story quotas, not hard to forgive. It is easier to write this way—using the prose equivalent of cinder blocks—than to think carefully about each word.

But blast is not simply a tired word. When we read about blasts on Capitol Hill, we are implicitly invited to think of it as a combat zone. This, I think, is where the real case is to be made against its use. It is an insult to anyone living under the threat of violence to use such language in reference to our political goings-on, even when they are contentious. There is something grimly comic about noting who is blasting whom over tax policy and reading in the pages of the same newspaper a story headlined “40 Dead in Nigeria Blast.”

In her book, Wounding the World, Joanna Bourke laments the incursion of military violence into the political and social life of Britain and the United States. I am surprised that she does not mention the casual militarization of English prose, of which blast is so odious an example. Unlike Bourke, who blames video games and victory parades for the Iraq War, I have a modest sense of the cultural stakes here: The subsumption of our political discourse into the language of bloodshed, while pernicious, has not made us more violent. Yet language need not be dangerous to warrant criticism; being ugly is enough.

Metaphor should always be deliberate. When Senator X is said to be blasting away—or attacking or slamming or grilling or hammering—he is, of course, actually doing no such thing. “Today via e-mail this reporter received a document from a member of Senator X’s staff that contained criticism of the administration” is neither surprising nor compelling. This sad truth should not lead journalists to adorn their facts with uninspired military tropes.

In The Parlement of Foules (1382), another of Chaucer’s narrative poems, a very silly argument between a trio of eagles is brought to a sudden end by Dame Nature, allowing them and the rest of the feathered assembly to spend their Valentine’s Day in peace. No helpful goddess is likely to descend from on high to “unbynde” us from “this noyse.” Politics is not going away; nor is the pace at which news is gathered, reported, and consumed likely to ease up.

Still, might I direct reporters and their editors to that old friend of less-put-upon scribblers everywhere, the thesaurus? Condemn, denounce, disparage, reproach, admonish away! But give that other word a rest.

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of the Washington Free Beacon. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, and many other publications.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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