Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Tired Word

It is unclear how and when a phrase becomes a cliché or words become tired and overused. Certainly, someone sometime sat down and penned or printed them the first time. At that moment, usage was fresh and even insightful. Rather than recite them, I’ll simply post a link to, and you can read it and weep. (Hummm. A cliché, no doubt.) On that site you’ll find your favorites—phrases that over time have crept into your syntax. also offers the cliché of the day.

A cliché is sort of OK in conversation. Sort of. When you’re a journalist, however, you are the editor’s next victim……………..perhaps. Apparently, editors aren’t catching clichés much anymore. It may be an evil outgrowth of the web and Twitter.

What do I mean by “tired words”? My step-mom says some of the offerings in the line at Luby’s cafeteria look “tired”. Get the picture?” They have been there so long under the heat lamp they are no longer savory.

Open the Austin American-Statesman and open your mind and eyes to the language there in. In almost any edition, you’ll find clichés and worn-out words. It’s unclear how that happens.

When I read certain phrases or even words, I read further with fear and trembling. Wait. That’s probably a cliché. I haven’t checked the list.

Broadcast news is even more prone to these problems. It’s unclear whether writers for the ear and the eye are using clichés and tired or overused words to be conversational or just lazy. Writing for the ear and eye indeed should be conversational, but clichés aren’t cool.

“Centered on” became the phrase I wanted to hear the least. Then, it was misused, and people started to write and say “centered around”. No. You cannot center around something. You must center on something if you are centering at all.

So I that won’t be unclear, what the heck, let’s list a few clichés:

“All over the map”

“All talk and no action”

“Bark is bigger than his bite” (Not on the list, but qualifies)

“Barking up the wrong tree” (I’ve see a dog do this. Pretty funny.)

“On the cutting edge” (“Cutting edge” isn’t on the cliché list, but it should be on list of tired words.

“Oh, my God” (Now expressed as OMG!)

“Raining Cats and Dogs” (I always liked “A real frog strangler” better. It’s on the list.

“…rolling stone gathers no moss” (The site says this was first written in the United States. I don’t think so.)

“Tail between his legs”

“Take your life in your own hands”

“No news is good news” (This isn’t on the list, but it could be.)

One could take these clichés and write an entire news story. They were useful. They spoke to us. Some became veritable proverbs. Now, they may be unclear.

You may have guessed by now the motivation for this screed. It is now clear.

The week of April 25, 2010 I picked up the Austin American-Statesman and in different stories on page one, I read the same tired syntax. “Blah, blah, blah is unclear at this time.” Or, “Blah’s motivation is unclear at this time.” (These aren’t the exact sentences.) Then, on the network news broadcasts that same night, something else was “unclear”.

“Unclear” has become the trendy new way of saying “unknown” or words meaning the same thing. Now, it is used so much, it is clear that “unclear” is becoming a tired word. One might question whether it is really a word. Look up “unclear” and you find the definitions for “clear”.

Picky? Perhaps. Read the news, listen to the news, or listen to the news and see if “unclear” is uttered often. If you are news writer, get out the Thesaurus and try saying it another way. Who knows, you may be the author of what will become the next cliché or tired word.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

It Was Just a Kernel of Popcorn

A kernel of popcorn can alter your life in an instant.

The afternoon and evening of Thursday, February 25th, 2010 were uneventful. My dad and stepmom munched popcorn for an afternoon snack. My dad read. My step-mom worked a crossword puzzle before making dinner. When it was ready, she called for him to come eat.

He stood and noticed a kernel of popcorn under a coffee table. The 94 year old bent over and picked it up. When he stood up straight with the popcorn in hand, the events were in motion leading to a major life change for him, for my stepmom, 90, and for his whole family.

He lost his balance and fell backward, striking his neck on a side table and his head on something else. The force of the fall fractured a vertebra and crushed another in his neck. The blow to his head created a blood clot.
The good news is that he was in perfect health up to that moment, and he suffered no paralysis.

I learned of the accident at 6 a.m. the next morning when my stepmom called, and I was at the hospital in Tyler by 1 p.m. that afternoon. She had been up all night waiting to call me.

Life has been a blur since then—driving to Tyler, driving to their home, driving to the motel, driving to the hospital, driving home. My sister and brother-in-law drove from Denver arriving the next day. They have stayed there for weeks, allowing me to return to Austin for a while before rushing back when decisions had to be made.

Rather than surgery, we—including my dad—opted for a “halo” to hold his head and neck in place so that it can fuse. It was the best choice considering his age. Even the neurosurgeon said that he was ambivalent about surgery. He’ll have this halo for four to six months or more.

Nurses noticed that he seemed to be losing cognition, and doctors ordered up another CAT scan of his skull. Sure enough, the blood clot was expanding rather than dissipating as they had hoped. We all agreed brain surgery to drain the fluid was the only solution. The results were almost immediate. Within a day, he was himself again.

My dad is now in the rehabilitation part of the hospital. When the therapists aren’t pushing him, he has time on his hands, time to sort through all that has happened and what may happen next. So, I think that it is he, not the rest of us, who is planning the future, just like he always has. “I never in my wildest dreams thought this would happen to me,” he told my stepmom.

What has this to do with news?

First, it diminished my interest in posting anything to the newsmcnabb blog for the past six weeks or so.

More, however, almost every news story written pivots on a crucial moment when everything changes. It may be the passage of a health care reform bill or it may be a homicide. There is an unexpected kernel of popcorn. When writing these stories, journalists more often than not write about these sea-changes in a matter-of-fact manner. There is nothing matter-of-fact about them ever.

Call it the “back story”. Call it putting a human face on the story, but telling the story that way is far more compelling than the “Dragnet” mantra, “Just the facts, man.”

(I’ve gotten email from readers asking why I haven’t written anything lately. Thank you for asking. Now, I ask you to pray in your own way for my dad or hold a positive thought. Further, when you see a kernel of popcorn, pause and think about the moments in your life. It goes by so fast.)

© Jim McNabb, 2010