Lexicon Valley

The Plague of Fake Paraphrasing

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Countless foreheads hit countless keyboards at 11:23 on Dec. 16, when Wolf Blitzer, reacting to Jeb Bush’s Twitter teasing of a Facebook announcement that he “will actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States,” perpetrated this tweet:

There was a chorus of “Wolf” and “delete your account.” The dismay had something to do with Wolf’s attempt to sex up presidential politics by borrowing from pop culture, and also with the genre of groaner wordplay, and also with the fact that others had already test-driven this joke before subjecting themselves to penitential swirlies. Reviews from Slate’s Twitter criticism desk included: “It’s not even a worthwhile insight,” “would have worked without overexplaining ‘GOP’ ” and “should have been ‘all about the baes.’ ” A more sympathetic soul countered that Blitzer had issued the best possible PSA for “those of us of a certain age”—that one must “avoid youthspeak at all costs,” regardless of how “down” one feels.

I don’t want to dwell on the fact that a person tried and failed to be funny on Twitter. This is practically the definition of having an active Twitter account, and if only the blue birds with the sweetest voices were allowed to sing, our woods would be silent, except when punctuated by #BRAAAHM. But I am intrigued by Blitzer’s use of the verb “paraphrase.” Traditionally, that term means to reword, to pour old wine into new lexical skins. Blitzer, however, is hooking into a growing trend: that of imitating someone’s well-known language or expressive style—often for comic effect—before or after announcing your intent “to paraphrase so-and-so.”

Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

To paraphrase Yoda, begun, this shitstorm has.”

Once, the whole point of paraphrase was to convey the same message in different language—whether to avoid plagiarism or crystallize meaning or just keep readers awake. Yet Duke Ellington’s “it” referred to music, not Pan-Afrikan social organizing. Cheryl Strayed advised her followers to “write like a motherfucker,” not read like one. Yoda spoke in a disjointed way, but not about libertarian conspiracy theorists. Throughout her career, Gertrude Stein remained noticeably silent on the subject of Bill O’Reilly. (Though one can dream: “The blowhard. If the blowhard. To the blowhard. Blow hard, hardly blowing blowhard. Blow.”)

In these recent examples, the import of the original statement has been discarded, though elements of grammar, structure, and individual word choice persist. The result is actually the opposite of a paraphrase. To do whatever-it-is-we-are-doing to Marvin Gaye, what’s going on?

The New York Times contributed to the inverting of “paraphrase” in 2010. Consider this passage from a magazine article by Fred Shapiro on movie misquotations:  

Sometimes lines are altered so they can stand alone, without the cinematic context. In “Island of Lost Souls,” Charles Laughton remarks, “They are restless tonight.” Now we paraphrase this as “The natives are restless.” Sometimes a specific reference is changed to a generalized one. “If you build it, he will come” from “Field of Dreams” becomes “If you build it, they will come.”

Fascinating stuff, but these tweaks are not paraphrases in the traditional sense. For one thing, if you submitted them in an academic course, you’d be suspended. They soundly fail the test baked into the word’s Greek etymology: para- (“beside”) plus phrazein (“to tell”), which suggests unfolding a message in language other than that which was originally used.

If the Blitzer-Shapiro treatment sticks, “paraphrase” will become a contranym of itself: a word that functions as its own opposite. (Other examples include “to cleave,” which can mean both “to split” and “to cling,”; “to screen,” which can mean either “to show” or “to conceal”; and, most controversially, “literally,” which can literally mean anything at this point.) The shift suggests a demand for an English word that describes borrowing other people’s expressive habits to sketch your own idea. Might that demand relate to a culture that is increasingly knowing, reference-driven, and attuned to meme-like slogans? One that constantly subverts old and traditional forms by smuggling in new meanings? We like the cheek of borrowing the establishment’s machinery to make our modern points—whereas there’s not a lot of glory in the traditional paraphrase. Then again, to quote the Bible (and paraphrase God), “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” In the meantime, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett puts Blitzer to shame: