How language evolves into noise

July 15, 1998|By Cullen Murphy

RECENTLY, the rulers of two of the world's most populous countries were compelled to relinquish their hold on power: Indonesia's Suharto left office amid mounting violence, and Nigeria's Gen. Sani Abacha fell afoul of a fatal heart attack.

Both Mr. Suharto and Abacha, of course, were despicable tyrants, with records of venality and bloody oppression. Their successors -- B.J. Habibie in Indonesia and Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar in Nigeria -- did not quite concede as much in the first public statements they made, but they did use language that seemed to indicate an awareness of the value of human rights and democratic procedures. Mr. Habibie committed himself to running "a clean government, free from corruption, collusion and nepotism." Mr. Abubakar declared himself "fully committed" to a "social-political transition program" leading to an elected civilian government.

Later, observers quoted on BBC radio described the two new leaders as "making all the right noises."

Staying power

Making all the right noises: The phrase has proliferated over a period of little more than two decades -- perhaps in part because it itself makes all the right noises. It signals that the noisemaker under discussion may be no more than a golden-tongued hypocrite, even as it suggests that a reporter, having seen it all, could not possibly be taken in by the noisemaker's blandishments. It also leaves open the unlikely possibility that the actions will indeed live up to the noises.

Making all the right noises, carrying the connotation just described, seems to have surfaced mainly in British publications in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It surely evolved from earlier use in more literal, straightforward contexts (for instance, to describe the sound of an automobile engine or a musical performance) and ultimately from the long-established and nonjudgmental phrase to make noises (that is, to express oneself about something), a construction that happily accommodates all manner of adjectival prefixes.

All the right noises, with its stance of jaded cynicism, quickly spread from British organs (the Economist, the Guardian, the Financial Times) into most parts of the far-flung Anglophone circulatory system. Today it is applied in a wide range of circumstances, especially when the noises being talked of invite a presumption of hollowness or hypocrisy.

Here is New York's Newsday earlier this year, analyzing the economic situation in South Korea: "Kim Jong Pil, in line to become Kim Dae Jung's prime minister, may make all the right noises about economic reform, but his own ties to the chaebol [industrial conglomerates] may be too tight to break."

The Times of London, writing about the British prime minister: "Tony Blair must do something. And a making-all-the-right-noises kind of Valentine message is not enough."

Among the reasons why such an expression achieves wide usage quickly is this: The phenomenon of empty talk is so prevalent that new ways of describing it are always welcome. As it happens, many wonderful terms for empty or hypocritical talk are by now quaint and archaic (humbuggery, Pharisaism, Tartuffery), and some of the most common terms are simply vulgar.

Lip service, as in the phrase to pay lip service -- from the act of FTC raising one's voice publicly in prayer or song while inwardly harboring contrary convictions -- is probably the most widespread and durable formulation.

Lip, with its satisfying mouth feel (to use the jargon of the food-service industry) and its still-obvious link to an elemental root (the Indo-European leb, with the connotation "hanging loosely"), has formed numerous slang combinations whose meanings touch all the compass points of verbal intention. To zip your lip is to shut up. To invite someone to read your lips is to emphasize your sincerity. To lip-sync is to move one's lips in synchronization with a prerecorded sound.

Like paying lip service, making all the right noises possesses just enough color to be memorable and yet not so much color as to cloy. It may be in for a long run. In contrast, one has to wonder about the longevity of its main rival in the linguistic marketplace right now: talking the talk, but not walking the walk -- a vivid expression from black English that seems lately to have become a mandatory part of the repertoire of white politicians, corporate executives, consultants, motivational speakers and newscasters.

A person who talks the talk and walks the walk is one who acts naturally and stylishly, whose words and behavior are of a piece; a person who talks the talk without walking the walk, therefore, is one who is dissembling, ineffectual, or insincere. The incorporation of walk the walk and talk the talk into white-bread English, often by people whose jus' folks colloquialism is a pose, may not bode well. One need only remember how the appropriation of the verbs dig, rap and groove by grown-ups during the late 1960s and early 1970s proved to be a kiss of death.

Latin version

The extent to which the expression has found favor was brought home a few weeks ago when Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis traveled to Rome to ordain a Minnesota-bound candidate for the priesthood. There, in a chapel at the North American College on the slopes of the Janiculum Hill, during a service otherwise conducted entirely in Latin, the archbishop delivered a sermon that included this injunction to the young man: "When you teach, be sure you receive the word into your heart before the word forms on your lips. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Don't preach one thing and turn around and do something else."

One can assume that the new priest, in response, made all the right noises.

This is an excerpt of an article by Cullen Murphy, managing editor of Atlantic Monthly, which first appeared in Slate magazine.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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