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Linguistic Interventions (Et Tu, Bayer?)

Image: Tag line shot from Bayer’s ‘This Is Why We Science’ commercial series

Don’t Call Me in the Morning

Writers are people far better suited than most to do a service to society–even to take on a responsibility–of offering guidance on language and how we use it. But we rarely live up to it.

The critic in me has long longed (sorry) to establish a Bureau of Assaults on the Language by Commercials (BALC, as in for God’s sake, why don’t we balk at this crap?).

My latest target? Bayer. Yes, those aspirins we’ve been taking all our lives. I want my money back.

In a beautifully scored and shot series, just released last month, the company touts many reasons to appreciate its products. From crops to heart health, the imagery is ravishing, the voice-over is superb, the arc of these ads’ vignettes is perfect. And then the company asks you to swallow its new slogan:

This is why we science.

No, you’re not wrong. Let me save you that visit with Merriam-Webster. Science is not a verb. And what Bayer is doing is bashing another hole in correct usage–and so needlessly–for its own purposes of being cute with analgesics. Children will march around talking about “sciencing,” thanks to this over-the-counter insult. And we, as writers, should resent it, and say so.

Here you go, I’ll let you experience the headache of this particular travesty for yourself:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8BmQdXzv2A]

Resistance Is Not Futile

The typical feeling when you see or hear something like this–and this is hardly limited to writers–is “what can I do?” But a group of writers, a week ago today, reminded everyone that a sense of helplessness doesn’t have to be the default.

Don’t worry, we’re not here to thrash out the political moment of the day. Donkeys and elephants can lie down together here–we are a peaceable kingdom. My next example, though, comes from the debate of the moment, so bear with me as we look at a kind of intervention that authors and other writers can and should make more frequently.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

That’s my provocation for you today. Why don’t we speak up? It’s our own carefully crafted writings that are weakened when we excuse linguistic indulgence as the natural evolution of a living language.

Here’s a look at how it can go when someone steps forward.

Roxana Robinson [1] is a former president of the Authors Guild [2] and an unfailingly thoughtful writer of issue-driven fiction. Her most recent book, Dawson’s Fall [3] (Sarah Crichton Books, May), deals with racial and other social dynamics in post-Civil War Charleston. Cost [4] (FSG, 2008) looks at addiction and family. Sparta [5] (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013) examines the terrifying isolation of today’s soldiers returning home from the battlefield.

It’s predictable that Robinson would have spotted–and cared about–the sudden tossing-around of the phrase quid pro quo. She was the writer of the November 8 letter to the editor [6], signed by 32 other writers, in which she pointed out to The New York Times’ team and journalists at other media that their use of that Latin needed rethinking.

Roxana Robinson. Image: Beowulf Sheehan

“Most people don’t understand what [the phrase] means,” she wrote, “and in any case it doesn’t refer only to a crime. Asking for a favor is not a criminal act; we frequently demand things from foreign countries before giving them aid, like asking them to improve their human rights record.”

She’s right. The Latin translates basically to “this for that” or “something for something else.” A venti Americano for $3.25 is a quid pro quo. What’s alleged to have occurred in terms of Donald Trump’s withhold of congressionally mandated military funding for Ukraine and an Oval Office meeting is, as Robinson and her associates asserted, bribery or extortion.

A week later, much commentary around impeachment-inquiry coverage is touching on this. Most pointedly, for example, as Mike DeBonis and Toluse Olorunnipa at The Washington Post [7] wrote, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, just yesterday (November 14) put the term bribery into play for the first time. Reporters got busy explaining the significance of that shift in the lexicon. In terms of strategy, in fact, it’s being pointed out that Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution names only two offenses specifically for impeachment, citing “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Of course, we can’t say that the letter from Robinson and her cohorts prompted this assessment of the use of quid pro quo. But their appeal was broadly covered, well-timed, and contributed to the national conversation.

And in my never-humble opinion, we need to see more interventions like this.

We, the writers–the people whose livelihoods, artistry, and commitment depend on protecting shared understandings of how we say and write things–should be the ones making these interventions.

So that’s what I’d like to hear from you on. What commercial claptrap bugs you the most? You can even raise a political gaffe, if you like, we’re all friends here. And shouldn’t we be intervening? (After we send flowers to Roxana Robinson.) How about that Bureau of Assaults on the Language by Commercials? Could you get behind it if it existed? Are you just going to keep sitting there if “We Do Chicken Right?”