02/18/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

A So-Called Adjective

I blame the fiscal cliff. And why not? It is the so-called El Niño of today, the easily scapegoated scourge of our time. Wait. Why did I just modify El Niño? Have I too adopted the so-called media's latest tic? Damn it again! Damn you fiscal cliff!

You see, at some point, the media, apparently not trusting the layperson to appreciate the figurative nature of this particular cliff, began referring to it as the 'so-called fiscal cliff.' And kept referring to it as the 'so-called fiscal cliff.' Given how often the term is used, I'm surprised no one has yet spoken of the 'so-called so-called fiscal cliff.' Although, oddly enough, that might actually make sense. As for the rest, the 'so-called' storm to come, well . . . that was inevitable.

The so-called polar vortex was blamed for our recent weather problems. The so-called millionaire's tax was argued for in local and national political contexts. The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial--the momentous trial about the teaching of evolution--was recently in the news. So-called 20-week bans. So-called metadata. So-called Oslo Agreements. So-called grand bargain. So called pro-forma sessions. So-called omnibus legislation. So-called Arab Spring. So-called gay propaganda. So-called reverse mortgages. So-called national security letter. So-called smart cards. So-called Super PACs. So-called Obamacare bailout. So-called Bridgegate scandal. So-called Dreamliner. So-called Shoe Bomber. So-called DREAM Act. So-called Farm Bill. So-called direct payments. So-called black widows. So-called knowledge workers. So-called coaching carousel. So-called public-safety exception. So-called breast-cancer gene. So-called Section 215 program. So-called twin deficit problem. So-called face-to-face discussions. So-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. So-called promotion of nontraditional sexual relations around minors. So-called couch.

I have recently heard or read all these and more in reputable media outlets. Okay, I made that last one up, though it makes at least as much sense as the others. After all, a couch is commonly referred to as a couch.

Out of context, some of the above terms might sound mystifying. What is a '20-week ban,' for example? In context, however, it is quite clear that the term refers to attempts in some states to limit abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy (though a pregnancy's starting point somehow varies by state) and similarly clear that the term is a colloquial one. There is no need to broadcast this with a modifier, and doing so does nothing to clarify meaning or connotation.

Furthermore, some of the above terms are too new to deserve their 'so-called' label. The expression 'Obamacare bailout'--a reference to a passage in Obama's healthcare legislation that has been largely ignored up till now--had just been invented when I heard it prefaced by 'so-called.' Neither a specific community nor the general population had yet weighed in, had even had the time to passively decide whether the term would catch on. How could 'Obamacare bailout' then be widespread enough to warrant being 'so-called'? Labeling it as such falsely gives it a sense of popularity it does not deserve--though doing so might be self-fulfilling.

Perhaps there is an intermediate stage for such a term, when it is fairly new but has had some time to spread, when it might be appropriate to modify it with 'so-called.' Perhaps using 'so-called Bridgegate scandal' to refer to the possible involvement of Governor Christie's administration in the George Washington Bridge lane closings makes some sense, though I don't think 'so-called' adds anything here, and anyone can, without the help of a modifier, tell that 'Bridgegate' is a shorthand name. But the modifier clearly is not needed once a phrase has entrenched itself in the vernacular. You don't now hear many people referring to a 'so-called Watergate scandal,' do you?

Like 'Watergate,' many of the terms I listed have been so widely used over time that they might as well be defined terms: the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Oslo Agreements (or Accords), the Arab Spring, among others. These even lose some of their power when modified by 'so-called,' partly because they are being unnecessarily modified and partly because 'so-called' is sometimes used in a pejorative fashion. 'So-called Oslo Agreements' sheds official stature and ring of authority. 'So-called Arab Spring' gives away romance and hope before succumbing to disenchantment. 'So-called Scopes-Monkey Trial' trades the dignity of Spencer Tracy for the cynicism of Gene Kelly (traits of their respective characters in Inherit the Wind, not real life).

And many of the listed terms actually are defined words or phrases: What is so 'so-called' about 'metadata'? You can look it up; it is used in the current national security debates exactly as its definition indicates it should be. So too for 'polar vortex' (see: Al Roker's lecture). And ditto for 'omnibus legislation' passed (or not, given today's political environment) on Capitol Hill. In fact, this term exactly mirrors an example for 'omnibus' in the New Oxford American Dictionary: "Congress passed an omnibus anticrime package."

Some of these terms, however, just plain misuse the modifier: The so-called Dreamliner. 'Dreamliner' is the name given to a line of jumbo jets by its manufacturer, Boeing. One can safely refer to a Dreamliner by its name, no? The ban on so-called gay propaganda in Russia. Shouldn't this be: "a ban on what the law's backers term 'gay propaganda'"? After all, 'gay propaganda' is not commonly used in only one specific sense and certainly not in the sense intended here, where the term is being twisted by politicians to suit their agenda. So-called knowledge workers. I prefer, "(apologies in advance for the elitist term) knowledge workers," unless the writer meant 'so-called' to function as a feeble, indiscernible apology. In any case, he continued to use the term--which he should never have used in the first place--sans apology throughout his piece. I suppose he knows his readers. And what of a so-called Section 215 program? In other words, a program authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act? Why modify this?

The entry for 'so-called' in the New Oxford American Dictionary--which I consulted in writing all of the above--gives two definitions, with examples for each:

-First Definition: "Used to show that something or someone is commonly designated by the name or term specified."
-Example: "Next on the list are so-called 'soft' chemicals like phosphorous acid."

'So-called' is useful here, especially if this sentence were spoken instead of written, as otherwise one might mistake the implications of 'soft'--perhaps assume the chemicals are literally soft. The misguided uses of 'so-called' now proliferating are corrupt applications of this definition.

-Second Definition: "Used to express one's view that a name or term is inappropriate."
-Example: "She could trust him more than any of her so-called friends."

Again, 'so-called' does something valuable here. It gives you an idea of what the speaker actually thinks about the referred-to friends. This is not the usage I have been complaining about (though it does color any usage of the word). In fact, if the person talking about the 'so-called Section 215 program' had intended his usage to show skepticism of the legality of the NSA's metadata collection, then his use would have made sense. Unfortunately, he was going for the first definition. Perhaps you thought the speaker referring to 'so-called gay propaganda' had this usage in mind, but, as this phrase appeared in her reporting of the news--not in an editorial or as a quote from an interview--I do not think this was the case. Even if it had been an example of editorializing, it would still have been misguided, as it lacked elements typical of uses in accordance with the second definition. First, there was no sneering at the term 'gay propaganda' in her tone. Second, it would not have been possible for her to imply that the behavior being banned actually was gay propaganda but didn't measure up to some standard for such propaganda, because, as used by the ban's backers, 'gay propaganda' is just newspeak: while the backers' rhetoric could be termed 'propaganda against gays,' the behavior of the ban's target population has no relation to propaganda of any kind. (If someone insisted that the banana in front of me was actually a car I wouldn't refer to the banana as a 'so-called car'; I'd just take away their Olympics.)

In any case, the examples I've encountered never use 'so-called' to add meaning or color to what they modify--they just use it. It is the adult equivalent of the teenager's 'like.' This doesn't mean that the modifier doesn't serve some purpose, just that that purpose, as I'll get to soon, is associated with factors unrelated to the modified terms themselves.

The Oxford English Dictionary complicates my complaints. I'll focus on the second OED entry, as the first entry speaks to a universe of 'so-called' separate than the one under consideration here:

-Definition: "In attributive use (hyphened): Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it. Also loosely or catachr[estically] as a term of abuse."
-Small Print: "More recently, and now quite commonly (esp. in technical contexts), used merely to call attention to the description, without implication of incorrectness."

(The second sense of the word, ironically, is a base version of the first--a so-called 'so-called.')

Some terms on my list are similar examples of what I call 'Small Print,' and some are not. This does not, however, mean that any terms on my list are modified correctly, though if 'so-called' continues to evolve in the direction it is currently heading, their modification will eventually be considered correct. I am witnessing 'so-called' mostly in journalistic contexts, not the "technical contexts" the 'Small Print' refers to or contexts such as those in the OED's examples for the 'Small Print.' The 'Small Print' also gives a purpose--"to call attention to the description"--whereas when I look at my list of modified terms, I see no purpose relevant to the terms themselves. At best, the meaning of today's 'so-called' is derivative of the 'Small Print'--rendering it a so-called so-called 'so-called.'

The OED also shines light on a previous outbreak of 'so-called.' The OED's examples of what I termed 'Definition'--i.e., the pejorative sense of the word--include a passage from C.S. Lewis's Studies in Words: "Rose Macaulay noticed a tendency to prefix 'so called' to almost any adjective when it was used of those the speaker hated; the final absurdity being reached when people referred to the Germans as 'these so-called Germans.'" Irrespective of the differences between dictionaries, I would argue that a parallel absurdity has now befallen the use of 'so-called' I am concerned with.

So, more generally, even if you disagree with my amateur usage verdicts, what has changed? What has caused this rise of the 'so-called'? After all, the types of terms now modified survived just fine in the past without falling victim to this 'so-called' epidemic. They also survive just fine in the present; I frequently hear the same terms unmodified without any ensuing catastrophe. So what accounts for the current over-misuse of this modifier, now in its non-pejorative sense, assuming I am not imagining volume and timing of misuse?

The simple answer would be that 'so-called' is addictive, that once used it must be reused, and that its use infiltrates the brains of others and is echoed in their dictions. Hence the special hatred I reserve for our national vista of fiscal cliff after so-called fiscal cliff, far as the eye can see.

Another easy answer would be that the Internet is to blame: The Internet has encouraged the invention of ever more new terms and enabled them to spread quickly and efficiently. And as the Internet has propelled the need to sum things up in fewer than one word, rather than explain new terms or think about whether the terms actually are new and in need of explanation, people reflexively resort to a crutch. This crutch adds nothing for those in the know--for those who would catch the meaning of the term bereft of its 'so-called' modifier--except perhaps to remind them that they are in the know. To everyone else it says: "go look it up if you want to join our club." Of course, if you don't understand something, looking it up is the obvious fix. But without the prompt, perhaps you would have taken the prudent route and just forgotten the whole thing. 'So-called,' then, also acts as a mental hyperlink: it prompts you to pull out your phone and search Google.

I could also point to fear. Maybe people are now so afraid of being second-guessed or sued for libel or mocked on Twitter or just plain afraid of, say, terrorists, that this fear has made its way into language in the form of an unwitting and indirect hedge: a caveat of sorts slipped unconsciously into sentences, a shifting of responsibility for a portion of speech onto the populace.

However, I'll choose the cynical route and rag on the media. As I see it used today in the sense that I find irksome, 'so-called' pretends to imply that a word or series of words can be considered a 'term,' that this 'term' came from and has come to be widely used in society or in a segment thereof, and that society or a segment thereof has granted said 'term' a degree of cachet. However, as the terms I worry about, and the context of their usage, already convey this information sans 'so-called,' and sometimes convey as well to what extent the term has caught on, the hedge does not imply anything at all. Often a term is not even deserving of the stature 'so-called' pretends, in imprecise binary fashion, to imply.

Something else, then, is at work beneath the pretense: an attempt to endow the term with a one-size-fits-all popularity, to make sure one actually thinks 'popular' when a term appears, irrespective of its actual level of popularity. 'I am using a catchphrase!' the user seems to say but not say, 'Be excited!' At first glance, this might sound similar to the purpose given in the 'Small Print:' "to call attention to the description." However, the purpose I describe a) calls attention to the user and his spiel, not the modified term, and b) is invisible, hiding behind what 'so-called' pretends to imply.

But, contrary to what 'so-called' pretends to imply, the terms under discussion are not borne, multiplied, and knighted in the populace alone. And, based on the low incidence of the relevant sense of 'so-called' in conversation, the wider public are not the ones fusing 'so-called' to these terms either. It is the media that create (in some cases), spread (in many cases), and popularize (in all cases and with their synthetic official seal) these terms. Simultaneously, as if ashamed of or disgusted by their own brainchildren and by their emetic need for catchphrases, the media distance themselves from these terms, implicitly attributing them to the sagacious 'they' the world both blames for all ills and ascribes all knowledge to. Or perhaps they impute responsibility to us, their audience: 'You gave this to us,' they whisper under their collective breath, 'we only regurgitate.' How? What is their secret contrivance? A simple modifier that marks both what it modifies and the phrase it creates as catchy while relieving the phrase's user of accountability; both creation and use of the phrase or its guts are rendered unobservable offenses. (Nobody, however, now stops to wonder who actually is responsible for the phrase or its components anymore than they previously stopped to wonder who was responsible for the word 'reporter;' they unknowingly assume each came out of all of us past and present, out of the egalitarian thin air.) Words and terms and names and even catchphrases themselves are thus instantly buzzified, their histories and origins evacuated. Now they are ready-made for promos and crawls. Now they can be relied on as spice by talking heads and so-called writers alike.

* * * * *


Upon completion of the above I followed the OED rabbit hole to a piece William Safire wrote for The New York Times Magazine (January 13, 1980). In it Safire criticizes the use of what he termed sneer words--including 'so-called'-- and what he implies are their double: quotation marks. He notes that the use of quotation marks to say "'their word, not mine'" was growing (one can draw a parallel between this and Rose Macaulay's observations decades earlier) and that "disdain now has its own punctuation." I can only assume he thought sneer words sent the same messages. Regarding sneer words specifically, he writes, "Sneer words are those adjectives that put some distance between the speaker and the subject by saying, 'I'm using this next word under protest.'"

Of course, he was speaking of 'so-called' in its pejorative sense, and I am speaking of it in its nonjudgmental sense. Where he saw distance as protestation I see it as eliding a guilty embrace of the subject at hand. And where he found an implication of "'their word, not mine,'" I find an implication of 'everybody's word, not mine.'

With respect to the sense of the word my culprits aim at, what Safire says about a non-pejorative (i.e., un-sneering) use of quotation marks should be noted. "Quotation marks are being used more often to call attention to a special meaning," Safire writes. "Henry L. Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun calls these 'cop-out quotation marks'--when a writer uses a bit of jargon or a colloquialism and encloses it in quotes to show he really knows better." While Safire doesn't draw a parallel between this abuse of quotation marks and the uses of 'so-called' that concern me (or to 'so-called' in any of its senses), I will. After all, the intended use of these quotation marks mirrors that of 'so-called' as described in the 'Small Print,' and the abuses of 'so-called' I worry about may not have existed three decades ago. However, my 'so-called' serves a different purpose: not to cop out, but to be cool; not to show that the writer knows better, but to pretend that he doesn't.