2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.


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