April 5, 2020

Against Cliches: Announcers Relying Upon Stock Phrases To Describe Unique Events

[Draft Post, January 2020]

I have written of my frustration with radio broadcasts of baseball games, specifically what I hear as inadequate descriptions of various plays. Numerous announcers, among them Joe Castiglione, describe certain plays in extremely similar ways, using identical words and phrases to describe plays and actions that, baseball being baseball, cannot possibly be identical.

In How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton noted that Marcel Proust often "got very annoyed by the way some people expressed themselves", such as a fellow French speaker who used English expressions like "Bye-bye" or people who referred to the Mediterranean as "the Big Blue" and to the French army as "our boys".

Similarly, it is maddening that every time a pitcher attempts to keep a baserunner close, Castiglione robotically says "throw to first, runner back standing" (or if the runner must leave his feet, he gets "back in with a hand tag"). Foul balls are mentioned with no indication of which side of the field they were hit to, a ground-ball single past the shortstop (or second baseman) is described without letting the listener know if it was hit to the fielder's left or right. Being aware that your audience has no image of the game to assist them should be something a radio announcer learns on the first day of Announcing 101. (Some fans do watch the TV and listen to the radio, but many do not.) Actually, an announcer should know that many years before he attends any type of class. It should be so ingrained that an announcer shouldn't even have to remember it.

(Many, many years ago, when I was forced to listen to the Yankees on the radio, Michael Kay drove me nuts every time he said, in a casual and dull monotone, as if he could barely be bothered, "There's a strike." He drove me nuts plenty of other times, too – "of course". Similarly, John Sterling's supply of moronic catch-phrases was seemingly infinite, but his use of the meaningless phrase "There's a fast strike" was particularly grating.)

The cause of Proust's frustration was "more a psychological than a grammatical one". He believed these people were exhibiting "signs of wishing to seem smart and in-the-know around 1900, and relying on essentially insincere, overelaborate stock phrases to do so". Their "most exhausted constructions ... implied little concern for evoking the specifics of a situation. Insofar as Proust made pained, irritated grimaces, it was in defense of a more honest and accurate approach to expression."

The keys are "insincere stock phrases" and "little concern for evoking the specifics of a situation".

Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld was "an aristocratic young man ... who liked to spent time in glamorous Paris nightspots". In 1904, he decided to write a novel and eventually presented a manuscript to his friend Proust, asking for his comments. Among Proust's advice: "There are some fine big landscapes in your novel, but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It's quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it's been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull."

Alain de Botton asks why Proust objected to these phrases? "After all, doesn't the moon shine discreetly? Don't sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren't clichés just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?" And he writes:
The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

The moon Gabriel mentioned might of course have been discreet, but it is liable to have been a lot more besides. When the first volume of Proust's novel was published eight years [later, perhaps Gabriel noticed] ... that Proust had also included a moon, but that he had skirted two thousand years of ready-made moon talk and uncovered an unusual metaphor better to capture the reality of the lunar experience.
Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to "come on" for a while, and so goes "in front" in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.
Even if we recognize the virtues of Proust's metaphor, it is not necessarily one we could easily come up with by ourselves. It may lie closer to a genuine impression of the moon, but if we observe the moon and are asked to say something about it, we are more likely to hit upon a tired rather than an inspired image. We may be well aware that our description of a moon is not up to the task, without knowing how to better it. To take license with his response, this would perhaps have bothered Proust less than an unapologetic use of clichés by people who believed that it was always right to follow verbal conventions ("golden orb," "heavenly body"), and felt that a priority when talking was not to be original but to sound like someone else.

Wanting to sound like other people has its temptations. ... [But] a personal imprint is not only more beautiful, it is also a good deal more authentic. ... If, as Proust suggests, we are obliged to create our own language, it is because there are dimensions to ourselves absent from clichés, which require us to flout etiquette in order to convey with greater accuracy the distinctive timbre of our thought.

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