The vernacular hive mind sometimes hits on a phrase that can’t be improved, an idiom for the ages. Once uttered, the phrase is indispensable; once heard, ubiquitous. This popular idiom is to spoken language what the mot juste is to an exacting writer: the right word in the right place, perfectly chosen yet seemingly imposing itself of its own accord, as if dictated by language alone.
The past months have seen the spread of a host of new phrases, urgent slogans of the most significant mass social moment in recent years: “Black Lives Matter”; “I Can’t Breathe”; “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Another expression, less successful, has lately emerged that seems still in flux, not having found its best formulation. It’s as if we were witnessing a phrase’s stuttering birth, a verbal catastrophe in slow motion. “There’s only one way to say it,” goes one expression; “Only one word can describe it,” goes another. Strangely enough, the phrases circle around their own obsessive notion of a mot juste — the “single right word” dear to Gustave Flaubert,* “the one and only correct word to use,” as Hemingway put it, translating.** But in a grotesque parody of that ideal of verbal precision, the new phrases often miss the mark, even as they strike a dogmatic tone; the word chosen may be neither right nor correct, though it insists that it is just.
Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, made repeated use of the offending expression in his notorious grand jury testimony. “When I grabbed him,” Wilson said of his young victim, “the only way I can describe it [sic] is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Jamelle Bouie, in an article in Slate, helpfully points out that Wilson is 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds; Brown was 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds — a fairly close match, physically speaking. According to the police officer, however, there is only one way to compare the two bodies: as the confrontation of a small child with an indomitable giant. This confirms Judith Butler’s recent insight into the hallucinatory nature of “schematic racism”: even when subdued or imperiled, the black target of police violence “never stops looming as a threat to security,” Butler says. Similarly, when Wilson fired his first shot at Brown he said that the boy “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it [sic], it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
Interestingly, Wilson’s inflexible phrase “the only way I can describe it” gave way to a moment of verbal compunction when the officer struggled to find the right word to portray the boy he killed. “I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy,” Wilson said. But this conflict between certainty and scruples shouldn’t surprise us. It’s precisely the “lack of a better word” that supports the officer’s fantasy of a just word. After all, Wilson’s peremptory descriptions aren’t founded on any real certainty but rather on the denial of their own patently obvious speciousness, a disavowal of the truth that yields the man’s racist cartoon-world phantasmagoria of projected cruelty and horror. We find a similar conflation of ignorance and conviction in the lyrics to a current American song, where the mot juste is not a carefully selected word but its exact opposite, the word one uses because one can’t think of anything else, because one doesn’t know any better: “Only one word comes to mind / There’s only one word to describe…”.
Like its variants in popular language today, the murdering officer’s hapless phrase “the only way I can describe it” seems to derive from the more established expression, “X can only be described as Y.” Typically, in a phrase of this kind, the descriptor Y is pejorative and exaggerated, sometimes to humorous ends. As such, the turn of phrase is a rhetorical hyperbole. The speaker stretches the truth to make a point — stretches it, that is, except when referring to something itself hyperbolically nasty, such as racism in the American criminal-justice system. Here, the figural expression turns denotative. A UN special rapporteur, lambasting the United States for its treatment of Black Panther Albert Woodfox (one of the so-called Angola Three), provides a well-formed version of the phrase that ends in a judiciously chosen noun: “Four decades in solitary confinement,” the rapporteur says, “can only be described as torture.”
What accounts for the apparent warping of this well-known and effective locution into the strange, limping phrases we see in Wilson’s testimony and seemingly everywhere in the contemporary mediascape? Does a similar disavowed impotence underly the quasi-fascistic high-handedness of American speech? Perhaps the mutating phrases are tending toward a police-state’s perfect mot juste, the phrase to end all phrases and all discussion, the negation of language and dialogue. Accordingly, “there’s only one way to describe it” becomes I don’t care how you describe it. Isn’t this the implicit meaning of Wilson’s self-serving justifications? And isn’t it the message sent by the grand jury when it refused to hear reason, to consider the evidence and heed months of righteous protests?
American English is always refining the vocabulary of prudery and violence. Appropriately enough, it falls to a snarling Rudolph Giuliani to coin the definitive phrase from out of the vernacular babble. In an interview on “Fox and Friends” after two policemen were gunned down in Brooklyn, Giuliani perfectly captured the heady spirit of authoritarian counterrevolt that day as police officers snatched back the cause of social justice from vulnerable citizens and threatened a blue-shirted putsch on New York’s liberal mayor. Future lexicographers may credit the would-be strongman for the expression he used on the occasion. “We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said. “I don’t care how you want to describe it [sic]: That’s what those protests are all about” (The Washington Post, 12/22/2014).
* Flaubert always insisted on the paramount role of diction in literature. “Tout le talent d’écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots. C’est la précision qui fait la force” (Correspondance, II, 471). In a letter to Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert says, “Si je mets bleues après pierres, c’est que bleues est le mot juste, croyez-moi” (Ibid., V, 67). Elsewhere Flaubert uses the phrase l’expression juste; to George Sand he writes, “A force de chercher, je trouve l’expression juste, qui était la seule et qui est, en même temps, l’harmonieuse” (Ibid., VII, 290). To Sand again, he insists on the “rapport nécessaire entre le mot juste et le mot musical.” See Flaubert, Correspondance (Paris: Conard, 1929).
** Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), 132.