now… the word

And the word is: “brazen.”

Nothing important here. Just… lately I’ve noticed the word “brazen” popping up more and more in newscasts and print. It seems to be one of those words that, for some reason, journalists and editors fall in love with every now and then. They use “brazen” because everyone else is using it. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll appear out-of-touch or out-of-fashion if they don’t use the word too, so they put it into almost every story whether it fits or not. Maybe they just like the way it feels.

You can say that there’s nothing wrong with any of the above – and you’d be right. This is how entire words and phrases become part everyday speech. Remember “kinder, gentler”? One little speech by Bush the First (sorry but George I was taken) and for years journalists and editors were crowbarring that phrase into all kinds of stories. They invoked that phrase like some magic incantation as they attempted to win debates, dominate conversations, defeat opponents in arguments. Or maybe they thought people might confuse them with the intelligentsia; the learned class.

I was first surprised and then disgusted as that phrase by an American president infected the herd in Canadian journalism like some form of virulent disease. I noted at the time that the only question in my mind was: What the hell does “kinder, gentler” mean?!

The answer? It means absolutely nothing. Dick all. Nada. Zip. Bupkes. Rien.

I remember listening to and reading Canadian journos at the time, and becoming increasingly confused at nearly each and every instance that Canadian journalists used “kinder, gentler.” It seemed they wanted to signify something, yet they imparted not a whit of meaning. Didn’t any one of them ever question what that phrase meant, or didn’t mean? Why they used it? Why they shouldn’t?

It reminded me of an old friend who turned to me one day with a quizzical look on her face. She asked in all seriousness: “What does ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ mean? And why do journalists use it all the time? Why can’t they just say what they mean?”

I found that no matter how I tried to explain that phrase to her, or tried to justify its use in journalism, I could not. Finally, a lesson from a George Orwell essay kicked in: If a word or phrase confuses, explain what it means. If you cannot, then chuck it.

All of which brings me back to the word “brazen.” According to Webster’s online, it’s an adjective. Journalists should always be wary of adjectives, another lesson from Orwell. Can you count the number of times in one day that you see or hear a journalist refer to someone who “claims” to be innocent of a crime (nudge, wink) instead of “they said they’re innocent,” which is much less judgmental. “Brazen” means “brass… or made of brass,” or “sounding harsh… like struck brass,” and “marked by contemptuous boldness;” such as “a brazen disregard for the rules.”

So brazen connotes everything between admirable and criminal. A person who stands against the odds, or strict orthodoxy, or unjust laws is… showing brass, brazen behaviour, some backbone. Joan Rivers can be brassy; loud and provocative. But are members of violent gangs who, by definition, operate outside society’s laws “brazen” when they shoot up a nightclub? Or are they acting like… um… a gang of outlaws?

Would they be outlaws at all if they didn’t act in such a brazen fashion? Isn’t it slightly presumptuous of any journalist to tut-tut the behaviour of a gang like some school marm?

I found five stories in two Canadian dailies, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, that used the word “brazen” during the past week. The G&M used the word twice; once about gang shootings in Vancouver, then in a story about India’s elections but referring to that terrorist attack in Mumbai.

The National Post used “brazen” three times, three days in a row, all referring to pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Like I wrote at the top, this ain’t no earth-shattering issue. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night. But I find it interesting how journalists use language, and misuse language as well. I have to credit CBC Radio News for renewing my interest in this; how easy it can be to mislead an audience. It can be just as easy as choosing a handy adjective, like “brazen” or “claims.”

A Sikh teenager “claims” he didn’t threaten a white teenager with a kirpan (religious ceremonial dagger). It turns out that the judge has acquitted the Sikh teenager of this charge (but guilty of another), deciding that this kid never misused the kirpan. But the impression that he might have, just maybe, had been implanted by the journalist already with an audience that remains woefully ignorant and fearful of the other.

It is just so damn easy.

And that’s the point.

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Filed under Canada, Canadian politics, journalism, writing

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