The boy who cried awesome—sensationalism in language

Writer: Susannah Bishop

There was this young lad, a shepherd, whose main thrill for the day was to cry ‘help!’ ‘wolf!’ out loud, then lean back and watch with amusement as neighbours, friends and bystanders would attend in a frenzy, armed with spears and daggers, in his defence. Day in, day out, the boy would indulge in this passtime, crying louder and and more vehemently each time. Until one fateful day, the cunning wolf reared its head, gnashed its teeth and pounced on sheep after sheep until only a trembling lad was left, crying heedlessly for help and getting nothing but indifference.

A nice fable that has taught many a fibbing child to set his path straight, but with little relevance to the real life, right? sure! until it’s rephrased as:

There was this writer, a journalist, whose main thrill for the day was to claim ‘injustice!’ ‘discrimination!’, then lean back and watch with satisfaction as politicians, media and well-meaning public attended in a frenzy, armed with righteousness and outrage, in defence of the oppressed and marginalised. Day in, day out, the writer would indulge in this passtime, crying more stridently and enthusiastically each time. Until one fateful day, actual discrimination [insert ‘injustice’ ‘spurn’ ‘treason’, ‘scheming’, ‘rejection’ or any other outrage-inducing word haunts your mind] reared its head, gnashed its teeth and pounced on victim after victim until only a voiceless, sensationalist writer was left, crying heedlessly for help and getting nothing but indifference.

Suddenly it’s not a fable any more—it’s a scary metaphor of our journalistic tendencies. In fact, it’s a disheartening depiction of the sore state of our language. How can we possibly expect to cause wonder when we describe the universe as ‘awesome’ when the latest ‘2 percent off the price of chewing gum’ sale was also ‘awesome’? How can we expect empathy for a refugee’s ‘I have literally nowhere to sleep tonight’ when our neighbour’s plaint just this evening was ‘my husband didn’t make the bed, I have literally nowhere to sleep tonight’?

Granted, tone of voice does wonders to convey the actual meaning of a sentence, but our conversation cannot be limited to tone of voice for the simple reason that written text is our main channel of official communication. Furthermore, as important as casual, impromptu conversation is, it is memory that creates long-term professional and personal relationships—and memory’s main record is the word and it’s meaning, not its sound.

Granted, there are literary devices that assist in making a compelling, engaging and enrapturing narrative—devices that turn, transform and even ignore the literal meaning of a word in favour of rhythm, imagery, colour and even emotion. Nevertheless, much like rainbow-coloured font and fluoro yellow tables have no place in a patient’s medical record, and much like reggae should probably not be sounding as a background track to the last post, literary writing (with all its joys and beauties) should be placed (and nourished, loved and admired) firmly within its boundaries. After all, the young shepherd’s joke probably drew more than one smile the first time, but countless frowns the next.

Communication—especially official communication, but also our day-to-day—needs to shift back to its bases. As writers, journalists, reporters, speakers, parents, friends and neighbours, we need to reconsider what words actually mean—perhaps even use them to mean what they mean from time to time. We have a florid language, very apt for colourful imagery, sonorous harmonies and entrancing rhythms—spiced up by a telling metaphor, a shocking hyperbole, rapturous repetitions and alluring similes. But, rather like an over-salted dish desensitises the tongue so that the delicate flavours and essences no longer affect it, sensationalist writing, and heavily verbose speeches desensitise us to the awesome intricacies of our language, and leaves us, as a society, speaking the dull, blunt monotonous shadow of what once was striking, cutting-edge rhetoric.

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