Idioms come and go. Phrases pop up, gain currency, become established or fall out of favor. Others overstay their welcome. Tainted by some particularly infamous use or repeated to the point of redundancy, they should by all rights die out; for such phrases there ought to be a “Do not resuscitate” order.

A story in the news this week sparked a storm of moral outrage. At a retirement facility in Bakersfield, California, an elderly woman collapses on the floor of the dining area; a nurse is present and makes an emergency call. The woman is not breathing. The dispatcher on the other end gives instructions to the nurse on how to maintain life-support while the ambulance arrives. The nurse refuses, citing company policy. There ensues a back and forth between dispatcher and nurse, the former expressing increasing urgency and the latter, armored by legalese, placidly swatting away all appeals to humanity and reason. The dispatcher begs the woman to hand the phone to someone else, anyone who might perform CPR. The nurse does not let go of the phone. “She’s going to die if we don’t get this started,” the dispatcher says. “Do you understand?” Finally the dispatcher reaches a point of helpless frustration:

“If there’s any… as a human being I don’t … you know. Is there anyone there that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”

To which the nurse replies, the words drawn out slowly, as if in deep weariness or infinite patience:

“Not at this time.”

Not at this time: Stock phrase of bureaucratese, an obfuscating periphrase meant to fudge the plain words not now. A way to soften the blow to a job supplicant, who might bristle at the word never. A way of denying coevalness to employees and underlings, for whom time means money, only less. The nurse standing over the body of the dying woman does a verbal end-run around the word now, even as the clock is ticking and time is clearly running out. This time circumlocutes the present, while slyly implying there is another time in store; there will be a chance for an appeal, a possible refund, an audience with the pope. The nurse herself must understand there is no other time in store for the stricken woman, but her thoughtless parroting of bureaucratese meshes with the anomic inhumanity of her sovereign self-interest. She is the embodiment of actuarial logic, coolly assessing risk factors to her own job, itself part of a corporate entity designed with a view to extract profit from the calculation of mortality rates.

The woman dies. In the wake of the ensuing scandal, the Executive Director of Glenwood Gardens, Jeffrey Toomer, issued a public statement in which he affirms that the nurse acted in accordance to company regulations. The nurse’s notorious phrase has an ignominious afterlife in his callous legalese:

“As with any incident involving a resident, we will conduct an internal review of this matter, but we have no further comments at this time.”


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Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

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