Belfast Telegraph

Can we crack down on tired cliches before I crack up?

By Robert Fisk

Asked to give a talk on the Middle East last week, I read on my invitation: "We want to bring visionaries, innovators, doers, funders, connectors, and their community into one space ... With all of these people gathered into one space, it's inevitable that sparks will happen, ideas will find momentum, and positive change will take [sic] birth."

Now I have not the slightest intention of participating in this particular "space". I won't have anything to do with an invitation written in so cliched a language, including all the trappings of pseudo-academese psychobabble and happy-clappy optimism. These are words of emptiness and exclusion, of elitism and trend, of a conference held for the sake of holding a conference. Of nothing.

I've raged before about "space", except for its use in "spaceman" or "spaceship". But it has now become a contagion. In just a few days I've made a collection of examples from people who choose words for up-to-date verbal prestige rather than meaning. In Moscow this week, Joy Neumeyer, reviewing a Dali exhibition, wrote that the curator has "transformed the museum space into a surrealist installation". "Space" is totally redundant here. From Paris, I learn that the Champs-Elysées is a "commercial space". In The Oldie, I note that in Camden Market, a flag of Che Guevara now "shares space" with a Duke and Duchess of Cambridge-themed Union Flag.

In Beirut, an American University professor tells the world that the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi "created a space in which Lebanon's singularity is underlined by placing Lebanon in its Arab context...", while another Arab writer informs his readers that the Syrian regime's "assets" are "bunched into an increasingly smaller and smaller space". In The Irish Times, I read that a Sligo bookshop, much loved and now closed, was a "shared space", while a spokeswoman for Dublin Port says her company needs "a long quayside space" ("space" surely once more redundant).

Even the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury is now, according to its presumably literate publicists, "an attractive space" - when surely "is attractive" or merely "attractive place" would have made more sense. Last week, I even found a "workshop space" available at a conference, thus combining two of my most hated words in one phrase. The British Museum, I note, is advertising "interactive [sic] workshops" on 11 November. Stay away, O readers. Workshops are for carpentry.

Even old cliches are constantly being revived. "Crackdown" died for a while, but is now in daily use for an "Israeli crackdown" or a "Syrian crackdown" or a Cameron "crackdown" on crime (presumably of a less lethal kind).

It goes on and on. Sewage turns into "raw sewage" when people decide to swim through it on the Thames - "treated sewage" being, I suppose, beneficial to health - while politicians continue to "fight for their political life" and Africans die from the "deadly Ebola virus" (the non-deadly version probably being as harmless as the common cold).

Someone at the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust announced last month that "my background is in lobbying and public affairs, about encouraging people to think outside the box". I really - truly - believed that "thinking outside the box" had had a stake run through into heart. I thought another ghastly cliche had expired until I read that the television presenter Tim Lovejoy had found that Ho Chi Minh City was "outside of my comfort zone".

There's only one reaction to this stuff. The moment the cliches come up, throw the invitation in the bin. The Duke of Gloucester, George III's brother, once offended the writer of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by greeting him with the imperishable words: "Always scribble, scribble, scribble. Eh, Mr Gibbon?" He didn't deserve that. We do.


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