Monday, February 06, 2006

They must get paid by the word

Like the unfortunate Britishism "went missing", "famously" is currently one of the high-mindedly hip clich├ęs that writers at the New York Times imagine will lend a certain cachet to their otherwise enervating style. There were 12 uses in the past week, 65 in the past month, 653 in the past year. Twenty years ago, the Times conjured up the adverb only 34 times. Like the avian flu, "famously" appears to have gathered strength from year to year.

Myron Waldman, the animator who brought Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman to two-dimensional life, had a "famously fluty voice," according to his obit yesterday in the Times. Eulogized earlier in the week was feminist Betty Friedan, who was "famously abrasive" and "famously stormy." Travel writers at the Times have joined the obit desk in the quest for adverbial fame: they've combed the continents for adjectives to which "famously" can be joined. Sarajevo is "famously multiethnic" and "famously picturesque," while Kabul's light is "famously soft, diffuse" and the streets of a Puerto Rican town are "famously violent." So have the Times' stable of arts mavens: a play by George Bernard Shaw is "famously provocative," and a certain painting, like the sky over Kabul, has a "famously diffused glow."

You might hope that the financial and sports pages would be immune, but no: a "famously outspoken hedge fund manager" is quoted one day; a famed cyclist who is "famously disinclined to seek advice" the next. I can't tell you the hedge fund manager's name, by the way, because I was disinclined to pay $3.95 to read the entire article. So I'll never know the name of the "outsider" fired by Nike, the "famously insular sneaker company," nor the identity of the "TV king" who has a "famously flowing mane of brown hair."

In the Times these days, fame touches the great and small alike. Would I be wrong to describe Mary A. Littauer, a "self-taught expert on horses of ancient times," as a typically obscure subject for a Times obit? Yet not to the ancient-horsey crowd, for whom she was "famously observant" and "flowered famously" at some point or another in her autodidactic career.

I'm not sure the Times gets the difference between "fame" and "infamy." So, the White House "famously does not brook criticism." Does the Times think that "fame" really has anointed the squinting brow of our clueless president, or that the petty intrigues of his mealy-mouthed staff are "famous?" And is it really true, as the Times suggested recently, that John Lennon "famously" informed a reporter that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" and that Christianity would soon "vanish and shrink?" Was Lennon's narcissistic autotheosis ventured "famously" or would "foolishly," "frivolously," "shallowly" or just "brainlessly" be closer to the mark? By the way, how does something shrink after it has vanished? Did Lennon really predict that Christianity will vanish to the shrinking point?

The good news is that "famously" seems to have edged the elegant banality of the previous generation of Times reporters—"emblematic"—out of its ecological niche. The turning point came in 1993, when the obituary for Irving Howe used both words in a pedantic double whammy: Howe was "an emblematic New York Jewish intellectual" who "quarreled famously." In the Times these days, "famously" now beats "emblematic" by a ratio of 3:1. Perhaps it was the older generation of reporters who were responsible for its 208 uses in the past year: tall buildings are "emblematic" of a "new consciousness" among architects, while dancers of the City Ballet perform a "brief, emblematic arabesque." The "Jazz at Lincoln Center" facility is "emblematic" of an "establishment sensibility," and a certain "brass-tacks executive is emblematic of a larger shift" from one thing to some other thing.

What is the "new consciousness" in architecture? Why was the arabesque emblematic? What is the "establishment sensibility" emblematized by the Lincoln Center? Who is the "brass-tacks executive," and what was the larger shift? I don't know, because I'm notoriously cheap (or, if I ever flower famously enough to merit an obit in the Times, "famously parsimonious") and I won't pay a dime to read this cant.

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