Words that really move us

A colleague has invited my attention to a little bit of recent kvetching by a New York Times technology writer about the funny way airline staff talk:

" 'We do ask that you remain seated....' 'We do anticipate touching down on time....' 'We do realize that you do have a choice in travel carriers....'

"What's with that? Every one of those sentences would work better without the 'do.' It's as though they're arguing a point that nobody has actually challenged. Are they just so bored with those speeches that they feel compelled to insert random words just for variety?"

As a collective verbal tic of a whole industry, airline-speak goes beyond needless emphatic verb forms (e.g., "we do realize" instead of the simpler "we realize"). It extends to time-filling verbosities ("We will be starting the boarding process," instead of "We will board"), peculiarities of intonation (especially odd stresses on prepositions, as in "Welcome to the Boston area"), and the overgeneralized, all-things-to-all-people locutions such as "Welcome to the Boston area, or wherever your final destination happens to be," as if someone has just remembered all those folks looking to make the last flight to Bangor, Maine, tonight.

And those seat-belt instructions!

I think I know why airline staff talk like this: They're in an industry that combines the glamorous and the monotonous, an industry that grew up under heavy government regulation, right down to the scripted safety announcements. Cabin crews have a lot to think about as they prepare for takeoff, and it surely must help them to have their spiels memorized.

And yet I understand why airline-speak bugs the Times writer. It bugs me, too. This kind of disengaged language should not be part of the soundscape of travel.

The stationmaster's voice calling "All aboard!" as we hop onto the train is, on the other hand, an example of words that really move us. So is "Step lively!" which a lifelong New Yorker of my acquaintance remembers as a byword of the subway rides of his youth. And how could anyone who has ever traveled the London Underground forget to "mind the gap"?

"Doors closing" is the signal to passengers of the Metro system in Washington, D.C., to get a move on. The Metro got a new voice last month - Randi Miller of Woodbridge, Va., who won the Doors Closing 2006 contest.

Sometimes the engaged voices of the road are reassuring, though, rather than energizing. Once upon a time, I had to make a complete circuit of the state of Wyoming alone by car in January.

One evening I had a particularly long drive from the northwest corner of the rectangular state down to the southwest corner. Mercifully, the weather was clear, but the road was only one lane in either direction, the roadside snowbanks were as tall as I was, with no shoulder, and the only lights were on the front of my car.

As I fiddled with the radio for company, I started picking up stations from across the country - Lincoln, Neb., then the Twin Cities and San Francisco. And then I happened to pick up the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, whose traffic reports had been part of the soundscape of my childhood 20 years before. It was like time travel. I even recognized the names of some of the reporters. And the Harbor Freeway was congested. Just like old times.

As I made my way through the lonely winter landscape, the idea that somewhere, miles and miles away, traffic jams were happening in all the old familiar places was comforting. The words coming out of that radio were just what I needed to move me along.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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