Richard Mitchell, the author, publisher, and circulation manager of that elegant broadsheet, The Underground Grammarian, has expressed displeasure with the buzzword ''perception.'' And when Mr. Mitchell expresses displeasure, dictionaries tremble and grammars quake.
As our literary Cotton Mather, guarding the purity of the written and spoken word, ''Mitch'' certainly shook us up in our pew. For we have not been guiltless on this point - or a lot of other linguistic points, either, if it comes to that. In fact, after reading an issue of The Underground Grammarian, we often feel like snapping one of our black felt-tips in half out of mortification.
The fire and brimstone Mr. Mitchell heaped on ''perception'' went like this: ''Involuntary twitches of the mouth are Nature's way of punishing those who will not make their minds hold still.... One of the nastiest twitches going around just now takes the form, but not the meaning, of 'perception.' ''
Mr. Mitchell was kept busy in the same issue attacking the jargon of ''educationists'' (''the manipulators and adjusters who run our schools''), along with their ''claptrap world of 'learning materials.' '' He allowed himself neither the time nor space to apply the coup de grace to ''perception.''
Perhaps rashly - feeling like a Little Leaguer pinch-hitting for Rod Carew - we would like to complete the assignment for him.
Certainly the cause is just. Indeed, any language-lover's early-warning system should set up a red alert at the very sound of the word ''perception.'' It is so bland - as neutral as tap water. It may roll smoothly on the tongue, but it slides off the tip, leaving no after-flavor.
''Perception'' is a Madison Avenue word for people who also favor the kissing-kin term, ''image.''
''What is your perception of my candidate's image?'' asks the political consultant from looking-glass land. An impression, deliberately created, is being confused with a reality, deliberately concealed. If the confusion goes far enough, the ''perception'' of a client's ''credibility'' becomes valued as much as the truth - if not more.
But even if we grant that ''perception'' can be an honest word, it remains a limp-wristed word. More often than not, ''perception'' is a weak synonym for ''opinion.'' For instance, the question, ''What is your perception of your father-in-law?'' is simply a rather fancy way of asking: ''Do you like him or not?''
The thing that makes us perceive ''perception'' most disapprovingly is that it happens to be an idea word with no ideas of its own. There is nothing worse than a thoughtless word dealing with the very processes of thinking - and there seem to be so many of them.
Well, there probably is one worse contradiction - clinical words trying to deal with the emotions of the heart. And there are a lot of these, too.
If we were to run together the jargon of thinking with the jargon of feeling, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous sonnet might read like this:
How do I relate to thee? Let me conceptualize the ways we interact. In thy case, believe me, I'm a caring person -
beyond the output of any
computer to count. Thou canst not find a more credible image of
What does it mean that we have all this tongue-snagging difficulty saying, ''I love ...'' or ''I think ...''?
We leave these deeper questions to Richard Mitchell, who has observed of the foggy rhetoric of our time: ''Someone here has taken great pains not to say something.''