Stupid yet everyday utterances

22:33, Nov 16 2012

"To be honest" must be one of the most over-used phrases in common discourse.

If I am wrong about that, then the word "crisis" must go to the top of the list of the current crop of threadbare expressions that have insinuated their way into our language and for which I now call for immediate suppression.

Crisis suggests to me, and other scholars of our language, a crucial point which has a build-up and then some sort of resolution, good or bad.

We often hear, for instance, that Greece is in the grip of a financial crisis. I have lost count of the number of crises Greece has weathered over the last five years. In fact, Greece has been in a terrible state for a long time and to call it a crisis each time it needs money from its fellow Europeans is a lazy way of grabbing attention.

I heard the newly elected Barack Obama is facing a new crisis as soon as he gets back to work. The novel crisis, according to the radio item, was how Obama was going to deal with the $7 trillion American budget cuts required to get the country's books back in balance.

There is nothing new or confined about this crisis. The crisis happened a long time ago and dealing with it has just been put off. To keep calling a long-standing debacle as crisis is misleading because it suggests something can be done to alleviate it quickly.


Anyway let's get back to my pet hate which is the phrase "to be honest". It is a favourite of the simple-minded, but even the saintly Richie McCaw has become an exponent.

We cannot even blame this on the Americans. It seems to have been imported with the increased British migration to these shores, which, no doubt, has been otherwise highly beneficial, but has introduced a number of scourge phrases.

In its original and perhaps justifiable form, "to be honest" prepared the listener for a statement so nakedly frank that it would shock. Now, however, it has become a phrase like the pernicious "like", a sort of buyer of time while the slow-brained think of the right expression.

It also has an unfortunate consequence, perhaps unforeseen by the user. It suggests to me the utterer usually tells lies and needs to broadcast that for once he or she is being truthful.

We expect people to be honest and truthful in their normal daily conversation so to highlight the fact you are going to be honest for a brief moment should invite suspicion.

Thankfully you won't hear the phrase very much in political discourse. It's the sort of phrase Prime Minister John Key would love to use to make him seem one of the common people, but most politicians know how dangerous it is.

We rightly hold our politicians to very high standards of honesty and truthfulness, but we love to pillory them when they get caught out being honest.

Much has already been written about John Key's fairly inconsequential gaffs about David Beckham and gay fashion, but they are not good examples of what I mean.

Earthquake minister Gerry Brownlee is a much better exemplar. In refreshingly guileless statements he has called Mayor Bob Parker a "clown", our precious old buildings "old dungas", and who will forget his condemnation of complainers as, "people buggerising around on the internet".

Mitt Romney's recent bid for the American presidency was nearly undone by an unguarded moment when he said he did not represent the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay taxes. Perhaps this was the most honest episode of the whole election and in the end it didn't do him much harm. But apparently he got the figure wrong. It's closer to 38 per cent of Americans who do not pay taxes.

Because the media swoop on these rare moments of absolute candour, the target doesn't even have to respond. The outraged tenor of the media coverage will do the job for them.

Remember the English MP Andrew Mitchell, the Conservatives chief whip, who last month allegedly reacted to a police refusal to open the gates of Downing Street so he could ride his bike through by calling the police "plebs".

The police could hardly respond, but the media did the job for them and Mitchell was gone. He had broken the golden rule of referring explicitly, albeit in a fit of honest pique, to the huge class divide the English have yet to overcome.

Perhaps he could have said: "Listen, chaps, to be honest, you really are a bunch of plebs."

Of course, he didn't need to and neither do most people stupid enough to use this phrase.

The Press