‘Passion’ is no ordinary word

Which is why Bob is banning it

By the power invested in me as the owner of a web site, I hereby proclaim April 19, 2006, as National Originality Day.

The purpose of National Originality Day is for writers to swear off obvious phrases–boycott them, if you will–for one day, just to see what it feels like.

As reporters, we must extend this ban to quotes–we must work harder, spend more time with our sources, in an effort to make sure our quotes give a more specific, narrower, more intense sense of what our sources feel.

'Passion' is no ordinary word

'Passion' is no ordinary word

I have selected the two banned phrases for the first National Originality Day.

The first are the words “passion” and “passionate.” These words may not appear in print–as your syntax, or as your subjects’ quotes–on April 19.

Here’s why:

I ran the uses of “passion” and “passionate” through a data base several thousand publications on a random day: March 22, 1996. There were 211 uses of “passion” and 101 uses of passionate.

Then I ran the same search on the same day a decade later, March 22, 2006. There were 628 uses of “passion,” a 198% increase. There were 247 uses of “passionate,” a 144% increase.

What happened?

My best guess (actually, my wife’s best guess) is that something snapped in our no-holds-barred culture and a word most popularly associated with sex and romantic obsession began percolating into other areas. More and more people gave themselves permission to be passionate about their dogs, their religion, their hobbies, their–well, consider a few of these examples from March 22, 2006 and see how “passion,” a word of deep and true emotion, loses power the more times you see it:

–The Arizona Republic quoted its pro football team’s owner on the team’s new stadium: “We wanted to make it an exciting, passionate place where a lot of great football is going to be played.”

–The Republic did a feature on a visiting pianist, predicting: Sunday’s performance will showcase Kern’s passionate playing…”

–The St. Petersberg Times ran a feature written by an aspiring chef who boasted he’d “built a network of passionate students and key people in the industry…”

–The Chicago Daily Herald told us about a new craze, gothic belly dancing, in which an expert described movements that “are mysterious, passionate and have a sense of theatrics.”

–The Hattiesburg American editorialized about a “clear, blunt and passionate statement by a soft-spoken city council member in support of open meetings.

–The Tulsa World profiled a school counselor praised by a fellow counselor who said it was important “for young people to see that their true rewards come when they do something that they are passionate about.”

–The Virginian-Pilot wrote about a musical group with an Irish Celtic slant, quoting the singer: “We’re passionate about Celtic culture and our Irish heritage…”

–The Burlington Free Press quoted a national forest official, commenting on citizen suggestions for wilderness preservation: “People care deeply about the forest, they were passionate and knowledgeable.”

–Florida Today quoted a woman who spoke at a meeting about building a new school adjacent to an existing one so children could still see their friends: “I’m adamant and passionate about keeping the students together and the administration together under the same umbrella.”

–The Oregonian reviewed a band it described as “one of the most passionate and promising bands from Portland.

–The Capital Times & Wisconsin State Journal ran a story about a pair of school board candidates that said: “Both Silveira and Cole are passionate about public education…”

What could the writers have done differently about subjects who used the word “passion” or “passionate” in an interview? They could have said, as you may want to say in preparation for April 19: “You know, when you say you’re ‘passionate’ about [fill in the blank], give me a sense of what you mean. What happens when you’re [performing or creating or advocating]? What does that passion feel like?” The subject may say he feels transported. Okay, transported to where? Take me there. Show me–so I can show my readers-that passion is no ordinary word.

Which brings us to our musical interlude:

In 1978, British rocker Graham Parker recorded a song called “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” in which he anticipated the way “passion”‘s meaning would be crushed by overuse. A few snippets:

It worked much better in a fantasy
Imagination’s one thing that comes easy to me
Cause this is nothing else if not unreal
When I pretend to touch you, you pretend to feel

CHORUS

Passion is no ordinary word
Passion is no ordinary word
Passion is no ordinary word,
Ain’t manufactured or just another sound
That you hear at night
They’ve got new idols for the screen today
Although they make a lot of noises they got nothing to say
I try to look amazed but it’s an act
The movie might be new but it’s the same soundtrack

BRIDGE

Say how it feels real useless ain’t it
Wait until it bites right down inside you
The world is easy when you’re just playing around with it
Everything’s a thrill and every girl’s a kill
And then it gets unreal and then you don’t feel anything

The second phrase you may not use on April 19 is so meaningless that only the most desperate fall prey to it. It is:

Baby-boomers

My feelings were summed up in a letter to the editor that ran today in the Los Angles Times, a rant in response to an insipid Op-Ed piece the week before in which the writer warbled about the cultural waves caused by “baby boomers.”

“Please spare me,” wrote the angry letter-writer, Terrence Hartwell of Toluca Lake, CA, “from yet another boomer pulling a muscle as he or she pats themselves and their fellow age-group members on the back. The Me Generation is still living up to its name.

“No other generation writes anywhere near the amount of pablum about itself as the horrendously self-absorbed boomers. There is nothing wonderful about boomers; they all won the chronological lottery when they were born during the years after World War II. The idealism of their youth in the ’60s protested Vietnam and ushered in civil rights, but it was all downhill from there. Then came disco and no-consequence sex, deficit spending and materialism, followed by two presidents who are quintessential boomers: a likable adulterer who double-speaks out of both sides of his mouth and a likable moral hypocrite who favors deceit and profiting from his own preemptive war.

“Go away, boomers. The rest of us will all do so much better without you.”

I choose to interpret Mr. Hartwell’s anger as being not merely a reflection of his talk-radio-scented political views, but also the sheer fatigue we feel when that meaningless expression, “baby boomers,” is thrown at us so heavily: 89 times on March 22, 2006, almost twice the number of times it was employed (45) on March 22, 1996.

(Type in “baby boomers” on Google and in 11 hundredths of a second you are told that there are 19,600,000 hits.)

Lumping together 70 million-plus people born between 1946 and 1964 as a coherent group may make sense to Social Security wonks because of the fact that all those people are going to be needing benefit checks. But the idea that there is some attitudinal consistency or generational experience unique to people who are now between 59 and 41 years old is, well, stupid. It is the kind of easy logic that produces dull, dumb writing. I’m 58; what sort of generational kinship am I supposed to have with somebody who is 43–who was born six years after Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan show and was six years old when man first landed on the moon. Our ages, our ethnicity, our experiences as parents (or non-parents), especially our economic and social class status–throw us together on those levels, if you must practice “trend” journalism. But shit-can “baby boomers.” On April 19. And forever.

I won’t bore you with stale examples of “baby boomers,” because I’m sure you’ve read enough of them. But I did find one story that incorporated both of our banned terms–one of them three times:

From the Kitchener-Waterloo Record:

It’s a cross between an intricate, frustrating puzzle and the world’s greatest scavenger hunt. Each piece can take weeks to find, only to come with a price too steep.

It’s a true test of endurance and patience. And for Jim Illig, it’s a passion he wouldn’t trade for anything.

For six years, Illig has been transforming a 1947 Indian motorcycle from a basket case into a bike worthy of the road. . . . .

. . . .Illig points out that unlike the Triumph, which had a successful comeback, Indian stopped production in 1953 and couldn’t cash in on the same nostalgia value with baby boomers. . . .

. . . .Illig’s wife, Marlene, supports her husband’s passion. She walks the walk, travelling with him to the United States for swap meets for parts, pointing out the bike’s finer points on a scale model and recalling all the people she’s met at rallies.

Though Illig can’t remember his first encounter with an Indian, Marlene can. They had just started dating when a friend of Illig’s called him over to look at his bike.

“I asked, ‘Tell me why we’d want a cigar store Indian?,’ ” she says, still showing a tinge of embarrassment under a giggle.

“Ever since I figured out what it was, I’ve been interested. I have a lot of respect for people with passion.”

And then it gets unreal
And then you don’t feel anything

Confession: This original posting on April 3 called for a banning date of April 10. On April 4, several readers reminded me I had tactlessly chosen Monday of the Holy Week, when, for Christians, “passion” truly IS no ordinary word.