The Gripes of Wrath

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The mother of all…

The pope recently objected to the giant bomb dropped on Afghanistan being described as the “mother of all bombs”, saying “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?” The expression was also used for a demonstration in Venezuela recently, “the mother of all demonstrations”. It would seem that this expression was popularized by Saddam Hussein, who in 1991 called the Gulf War “the mother of all battles” and that it is Arabic in origin. However, an Internet search will show how other uses predate this. I also object to the expression when used to mean “an extreme example of something”, rather than an “originator”, because it has nothing to do with mothers. It is the only matter on which I and the pope agree.

Here are a few other recent languages gripes:

Accident and Incident

An “accident” is now often called an “incident”, which seems to me to minimize its importance or impact: click here for an example.


The American use of this word where in British English we would use “probably” is fine – in America. However, it has now infected the British press.

Looking to do something

Used to mean “expecting to” or “hoping to” or “planning to”. What is wrong with the aforementioned verbs?


I have heard “in protest of”, which is awful. There is also a very widespread use of “to protest something” instead of “to protest against something”. Is this American? Whatever it is, I protest.


Another example of the preposition “against” being dropped. “LuxLeaks whistleblowers appeal sentences.” I’ve heard this so many times that I’m beginning to wonder if it is right or wrong, or if the words “right” and “wrong” even apply.


“The victims were shot multiple times”. What’s wrong with “many” or “several”?


For example, « taking out a highly valued target ». Press reporting on real-world incidents is increasingly contaminated by CIA-speak, no doubt from the movies. It is often euphemistic in the worst possible sense, the above use of “highly valued” being a case in point. The “value” of the human target is presumably in death rather than in life. I would welcome other examples of CIA doublespeak that are now common journalistic currency.

How are you? I’m good.

Once again, fine – in America. But please do not import this pathetic replacement for “Very well thank you”. In either case, it’s generally a lie.

Can I get…

For example, when ordering a coffee. In fact, there is something very Starbucks about this depressing Americanism. Corrections: “Can I have..,”, “I’d like…”, “Could I have…” etc.

To gift

The use of this as a verb with an object, e.g. “He gifted her with a diamond ring” seems to me recent and wrong. Or once again, is it just American?


“The New Yorker offers a signature mix of reporting and commentary”. In my book, signature is not an adjective, yet this is how it is increasingly used, and it smacks of advertising jargon – like the substitution of “apparel” for “clothing” in upmarket garment ads.


“Germans have been urged not to scapegoat migrants, after an Afghan youth was arrested over the rape and murder of a German student.” “Scapegoat” is not a verb.

To reach out

This is a sickening one. “She wrote me a nasty letter and I tried to reach out to her”, “CNN has reached out to him for further information”. Meaning “contact”, or “tried to contact”, the visual image accompanying this usage has connotations of kindness, generosity, appeasement that strike me as sentimental and inappropriate.

In our thoughts and prayers

This fixed expression, following a death or disaster, is so common that it has become glib, though one must allow for the fact that offering condolences is one of the situations in which the only thing one can often do is trot out worn phrases. It’s like speaking in code.

To walk

“He walked back some of that language last week.” What happened to the verb “retract” or “go back on” or “take back”? What does this have to do with walking? Cf. “Please walk us through these numbers” and “to walk the talk”, all drenched in the ennui of the boardroom.

To think out of the box

Anyone who uses this expression is doing the exact opposite of “thinking out of the box” in that they are simply using a cliché. I am reminded of the man talking to his cat as they both look at the litter tray: “Whatever you do, do NOT think out of the box!” The expression “to push the envelope” is equally jaded. Why not say “to think out of the envelope” or “to push the box”, just for variety’s sake?


The expression “food insecure people”, meaning “people who are starving to death” (is this UN-speak?).

Incomplete information

The accession of Trump to the US presidency has led to a lot of language relating to fakery and lies. Thus Michael Flynn: “I inadvertently briefed the Vice-President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.” I love the “inadvertently” and “incomplete information”, as if he is exculpating himself twice in the same sentence. We all know what he really means. Here is another nice example of contemporary doublespeak: “He said Sessions did not make any misleading statements under oath during his confirmation hearings, but that he could have been more accurate in his responses to lawmakers.”

Back in the day

This seems to be a way of saying “In the past”, with the subtext that this was a very nice time. Not to be confused with “back in the days when…” in a larger context, which is fine. The earliest example comes from a 1986 Beastie Boys song, and the OED says it’s African-American. I don’t like it, so please stop it at once.

How about we…

For example, “How about we go see a movie?” Instead of “Why don’t we…?” or “Let’s…” or “What about…?” I don’t see any objection to “How about going to a movie?”, i.e. followed by a gerund to make a suggestion. But the “How about we…” strikes me as wrong.

In the many cases where the expressions I dislike are of American origin, my objection is not to their use in America, but to their adoption by Brits. There are few things as pitiful as someone ordering a coffee with “Can I get a macchiato?” with a British accent. A little flag goes up in my head, saying “He’s trying to be hip. He’s trying to be the exact opposite of what he is.”

So there we go, some of my recent “Gripes of Wrath”, bearing witness to the rapid decay of language and the feeling that Orwell on this subject should be required reading in every school. With America being presided over by a one-man language-composter,  abundant quantities of putrefying gripe fodder are now available on a daily basis.

Please feel free to correct me or add to these in the Comments box.










Une réponse à “The Gripes of Wrath”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your ‘gripes’…I wince every time I hear these ‘Americanisms’…

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