Friday, March 15, 2019

Common Sense and Other Hackneyed Phrases

Via Public Domain Photos
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen comments through her characters on how hackneyed the phrase "violently in love" is for her era. We have other phrases that have become almost meaningless from overuse around 200 years later.

"Common sense" has been co-opted since Thomas Paine used it in the campaign during the American Revolution. Merriam-Webster defines it thus: "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." includes more of innate virtue to common sense: "sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence."

"Common" is the word that is taken advantage of most. What is really considered common? Common is "normal" or "sound" or "practical." Truly it is in the mental dictionary of the speaker and listener. But "common" is different for each person's experience. Common sense is also mistaken for what the majority of the population wants. This phrase's hollowness struck me as I read Australians' comments and opinions about "common sense" in American newspapers and blogs this week. Americans "corrected" the Australians' misconceptions. Common sense in Australia is not necessarily common sense in the United States. 

Politicians try to pass laws using "common sense" legislation. We have to consider what is really "common" in the rhetoric. But this is also the argument of everybody is doing it, so you should too. Sometimes, we need to stand apart from the crowd when it is a matter of principle, even if it is a lonely position.

My software engineer husband often talks about how hollow the word "professionalism" is in the business world. At his first job, multiple bosses defined "professionalism" according to whatever whim they wanted at the moment. I think of professionalism as no swearing, no sexually suggestive jokes, and business casual dress.

Merriam Webster defines professionalism: "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person." So that just leads down the rabbit hole of what is a profession and a professional and conduct. I googled the word professionalism for the definition; multiple articles appeared with many ideas on the whole package of how to dress, ethics, being on time,  continuing education, and so forth. Essentially, the meaning and execution of professionalism change from job to job and boss to boss.

Humans are a funny species. As far as we know, we are the only species that construct abstract ideas. With this abstraction, some words and ideas become very subjective. We can't concretely picture them or hold them. We just ruminate over the impossible.

How do you define common sense or professionalism?

What words/phrases do you consider hackneyed?