To speak our language these days with enlightenment is to harbor an ongoing sense that there are words and expressions that come to mind but that, upon reflection, we shouldn’t utter. I refer not only to terms like the N-word — an easy case for self-censorship — but also to an eternally morphing assemblage of locutions that pedants, our kids, human resources and the Twitter herd say we shouldn’t use anymore. Terms that are hardly egregious but maybe just aren’t the best look.
In these latter cases we might go easier on ourselves because we’re being urged to let lexicographic paranoia steamroll common sense and basic humanity for justifications that don’t stand up as well as we might suppose. The list of supposedly problematic expressions is getting so long as to seem almost willfully copious, almost as if we were actively searching for terms to ban as a kind of sport.
On the phraseological front, for instance, I am told that people’s tendency to pepper their speech with the preface “to be honest” is a no-no: redundant because we can assume that in the default case, all people are being honest when they speak.
But expressions that underscore one’s sincerity aren’t just verbal flourishes; they help make communication work. For one, they are no novel degression from some mythical past when people didn’t flag their honesty when speaking. I think of Edna Ferber’s well-loved, century-old Emma McChesney books about a flinty divorcée making her way in the America of the period as a single parent. Ferber’s characters do a lot of talking, and so reading their stories gives you a sense of what ordinary American English was like around 1915, with lines of dialogue such as “