I stopped counting Thursday how many times I heard about The Box of Unknown Size.
It was at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview, where reporters focused their questions on how lawmakers will resolve the state’s longstanding school-funding problem (since a bipartisan group tasked with coming up with ideas can’t seem to agree on any).
That’s when the “size of the box” made its first appearance. And its second. And its third.
And it became clear that this euphemism for “we don’t know how much this thing costs” was going to top my list of overused cliches for the year.
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The problem with government-speak catchphrases isn’t solely that reporters are sick of hearing them (though that’s also true). It’s that, too often, these mushy metaphors say little about what’s actually happening and gloss over reality rather than help illuminate it.
So, as has become an annual tradition, here’s my list of phrases and cliches that I’d like to see banished in 2017 as state lawmakers (and their local counterparts) begin their work. (A new session in Olympia began Monday.)
Because nobody’s perfect, this year I’m also including a list of cliches I’m sick of reading from journalists. By including phrases on this list, I’m pledging to not use them in my stories from here on out.
Let’s begin with the box.
1. The size of the box
Translation: How much money something will cost, how much we have to spend, the overall price tag. Example: “We’re still determining the size of the box,” “We still don’t know the size of the box”
The “box” is a perfect example of a cliche that helps no one, except politicians trying to dress up the fact that still are working to determine how much money they need or are willing to spend.
It came up at the AP preview, where Republicans said they are still debating how much it will cost for the state to take on school-employee salary costs that are being paid unconstitutionally with local school district property tax levies.
“We still don’t have a fully formed idea of the size of the box,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who serves on the Legislature’s school-funding task force.
Democrats used the term, too, as they chided Republicans for not being further along in their thinking.
“The goal of this group was for us to define the box,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, another task force member.
The box — which is frequently mentioned in Olympia budget negotiations — is a problem because not only are its contents shrouded in mystery, so is its overall shape. In reality, is it even a box? Is it a bag? Is it dark matter?
The phrase tells us little about what is causing a political disagreement, while also creating an idea that there nonetheless is a product of some sort — an impression that may or may not be true.
2. “Robust” discussion, dialogue, program, whatever
Translation: We did a good job. We did a really good job. Also, we talked to people who don’t like us very much, and that was hard.
Somehow it seems as if “robust” is the adjective thrown in front of everything lately — especially to indicate that a public agency engaged in “robust” conversations with members of the community. But also, “robust” programs, or “robust” voter turnout or “robust” economies.
After a while, a word seems to lose its meaning through overuse, and I’m there with “robust.”
3. Tool(s) in our toolbox
Translation: One of the options available to us, as in, “That’s one of the tools in our toolbox,” or “We want as many tools in our toolbox as possible”
A redundancy problem: What’s wrong with just saying, “a tool” or “an option?” Why bring the entire toolbox into it?
What else is in there, anyway?
4. “Stakeholdering,” “resourcing,” and other government word crimes
For me, they leap off the pages of government PowerPoint presentations: words that either A) don’t really exist, or B) are fancy, obtuse ways of saying things that could be said more simply.
“Stakeholdering” is something I’ve seen refer to the process of running a policy proposal by other humans. It seems as if “talking to humans” would suffice, or if absolutely necessary, “Talking to stakeholders.”
“Resourcing,” while technically a word, still is just an unnecessarily bureaucratic way of saying funding or paying for something.
Same with “dialoguing.” Fairly certain that “talking” or “discussing” would work fine.
And don’t get me started on “daylighting,” which several reporters say local politicians use to describe introducing a proposal or bringing up a topic for discussion.
Hate to see the dark cave from whence that idea came. (Unless it was the Batcave, in which case, I’m in.)
We do bad things, too. Here are a few:
“Double down:” In blackjack, doubling down is when you double your bet. In politics (and political journalism), it’s when someone presses forward on a plan rather than backing off, or renews their commitment to an idea that has been widely panned. Really, though, it’s clearer to just say that from the start.
“Down to the wire:” Originally describing the end of a race where a horse is approaching the finish line, it now describes basically every other June in Olympia, when politicians rush to finish a budget before state government shuts down July 1. The dance has gotten so routine, it seems as if the race metaphor no longer applies.
“It’s official:” Overused as the first two words of a story. This phrase serves only to delay the actual news.
“Chilling effect:” A lot of things make me chilly, including the air conditioning by the press table in the state Senate and the majority of what passes for women’s clothing nowadays.
Tell me about the chilling effect of a policy proposal, and I want more details. Why would this thing chill that thing? Give me physics and specifics.
“Close-knit community:” Just because a town is small by big-city standards doesn’t mean that everyone there doesn’t hate each other.
Have phrases you think should be added to the list? Tell me on Twitter (@melissasantos1).