by James Staples
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
– Ariel’s song, from “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare
Today, I do not have any incisive political commentary for you. This is not an essay about our great nation or its crappy administration. Instead, I am going to bitch about something that really annoys me. My intention is to discuss two phrases that crop up in the news media so often one would think correspondents get paid a royalty for blurting them out. Before you post a comment in which you accuse me of being petty, catty or pet-catty, please remember two things. First, I usually talk about things that matter a lot more than this, things that are relevant on a grand scale, and I am entitled to bleat once in a while. Second, I am, as many of you know, in love with the English language, and when literate people use it stupidly, it fills me with a wrathful indignation which must be vented, lest I snap and start beating people into comas with an unabridged copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
The first phrase that I wish people would just stop using is “sea change.” Every time reporters refer to any change, especially a significant or momentous change, they are compelled to call it a sea change. One could almost believe they were getting paid by the word. The phrase was coined by Shakespeare. In context, he is talking about a very slow change caused by natural forces. In that light, the phrase is almost never used correctly. Reporters wonder, for example, if the candidacies of a black man and a woman indicate a sea change in the political culture. No, idiots! It just reflects a change. Does the advent and increase of the liberal-progressive voice on the radio reflect a sea change in the media? No, damn it! It’s just a change. There is no sea change in the housing market. There is no sea change at the Federal Reserve. Change is just change!
When dinosaur guts turn into oil, that is metaphorically a sea change. When tree sap turns into amber, that could be characterized as being like a sea change. When your city council raises the speed limit or cuts an impact fee, that is just a change. An editorialist does not come across as scholarly or erudite when paraphrasing Shakespeare in this way. He or she comes across as a nincompoop, trying to tart up a three-dollar column with sixty-four dollar words.
The other phrase that I have been hearing constantly ever since the first George Bush invaded Iraq is the phrase, “on the ground.” Reporters seem to feel the phrase gives a nice, military feel to their story. “On the ground” apparently gives a sense of being right there, on the spot, ready to kick ass and take names. News anchors want correspondents to describe the situation on the ground. Relief workers want to see an increase in aid on the ground. Every time there is a riot, or a shooting, or Britney Spears freaks out and does something crazy, we want to hear from the reporters on the ground.
I absolutely guarantee you that every time you hear the phrase, “on the ground,” it could, without exception, be replaced with the word, “there,” or else just left out completely. Think about it: “Tell us what it’s like on the ground over there.” “Tell us what it’s like over there.” “What we need most, right now is troops on the ground.” “What we need most, right now, is troops.” Adequate supplies are thin on the ground. Okay, then adequate supplies are thin.
And while I am bitching about such things, I’d like to get a couple more things off my chest. “Presently” does not mean “now.” It means “pretty soon.” There is never a situation when “refer back” or “continue on” are correct. If you wish to “refer back” to something, just refer to it. Don’t bother to continue on; just continue. Any time you have the urge to say, “irregardless,” leave off the “ir-,” regardless of what you’ve been told. One last thing: The word, “got,” is almost entirely superfluous. You’ve got to believe me… No, wait, you have to believe me.
James Staples is realizing his lifelong dream to be a published author. Born in Kansas City, Mo in 1966, his first abortive attempt at writing was at age ten. Since then, having discovered sex, drugs, punk rock, college, marriage, divorce, parenthood, small business, big business, religion, politics and every possible variation on the theme of coping with life as a human, he finally feels prepared to sit quietly and write a few things down (ending the occasional sentence with a preposition, just to be a punk rocker). He recently had a short story, Stealing the Stone, published in the Literary Underground anthology, Unearthed, set for release in January 2012. James lives in Olympia, Washington with two housemates and an unseemly number of cats.