Lexicon Valley

It’s Time to Speak Up About the Overuse of “Speaking Out”

Did Nicki Minaj “speak out” about the Charleston church shooting? Or just “speak up”?

Photo by Oli Sscarff/AFP/Getty Images

North Carolina florist Deborah Dills was driving to work when she spotted Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman, seemingly fleeing his Charleston, South Carolina, murder scene. She called the cops, then tailed Roof’s car for 35 miles until police caught up with him. Over the weekend, the New York Times posted a video interview with her. Its headline: “Motorist Who Alerted Police Speaks Out.”

Speaks out. The phrase implies something weighty. She isn’t just telling her story, and she isn’t just speaking. She is speaking out. But what does that mean, exactly?

In reviewing other recent Times usages of “speaks out,” it’s hard to tell. The headline when Kanye West objected to yet another award winner: “The Morning After the Grammys, Kanye West Speaks Out Against Beck.” The headline when Martin O’Malley, a presidential candidate who is neither Bush nor Clinton, stood in shocking objection to a potential Bush-Clinton election: “O’Malley Speaks Out Against Possible Dynastic Rematch for White House.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post headlined that O’Malley “speaks out” against a trade deal (and that the mayor of Washington, D.C. “speaks out on pot, dating and what makes her angry.”) Entertainment Weekly reports that Cersei Lannister’s body double “speaks out” about how great her filming experience was. On local TV, there’s even a lot of speaking out against animals. Northern Michigan: “Man Attacked by Dogs Speaks Out About ‘Terrifying Ordeal’.” Colorado: “Colorado Teen Speaks Out After Shark Attack.”

Deborah Dills isn’t the only person “speaking out” about this past week’s tragedy. Billboard: “Nicki Minaj Speaks Out on Charleston Church Shooting.”

No more. It’s time to speak out—er, so to speak—against the overuse of “speaks out.” When somebody truly speaks out, they are raising their voice above an oppressive institution, or taking a risk by speaking in opposition to something. Consider the very construct of the phrase: To speak out, one must have first been in. The speaker must have been contained. The speaking is an act against that containment; it takes courage. A whistleblower, for example, speaks out. So does a prisoner being abused in Guantánamo Bay. But when somebody makes a statement about something that directly or indirectly concerns them, or shares an opinion, or simply chimes in on the news of the day, they are just speaking. Perhaps they are speaking up. They are definitely not speaking out.

Put it this way: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham couldn’t speak out about the steak he ate last night, but he could, were he decent and bold enough, have long ago spoken out against the flying of the Confederate flag.

I made this case, some of it word-for-word from what I wrote above, to then-Times language columnist William Safire on Dec. 30, 2004. That day, the paper’s lead story—about the global response to the tsunami that ravaged eastern Asia—was headlined “World Leaders Vow Aid as Toll Continues to Climb.” Beneath it was the subhed “Bush Speaks Out,” because George W. Bush, after a few days of unexplained silence, had finally issued a statement pledging help. He had spoken. But what was Bush speaking out about? My argument: The Times was wrong to say he had spoken “out” at all.

Safire passed my words along to Allan Siegal, then the paper’s standards editor, who sent me this reply: “My first impulse was to scour the dictionary definitions and defend our headline. My second—and current impulse—is to tell you that you’re absolutely right. I also plan to tell the staff, in our post-mortems. Thanks, and regards.” Vindication!

(I was a cub reporter at a Times-owned community newspaper at the time, and this was the greatest email of my career so far. I replied, telling Siegal that whenever I applied for a job at the Times, I’d include his note in my application to show that he once declared me “absolutely right.” His response: “With any luck, I’ll be retired, and the person you tell will point out (correctly) that ‘absolutely right’ is redundant.”)

I don’t know if Siegal ever actually relayed this to the staff, but he did retire in 2006 and the “speaks out” abuse continues there, as it does across the media. This is a problem, and not just for nit-picky readers like myself. It seems clear that publications overuse “speaks out” because it inflates the importance of a story. It isn’t all that newsworthy when Kanye speaks, but it seems far more noteworthy when he speaks out! It’s as if we’re justifying our having written these stories, or perhaps luring the reader in with promise of important speech the way CNN declares everything to be “breaking news.” This isn’t fair to readers. If a story can’t survive without the phrase speaks out—if, say, “Nicki Minaj Says Things About Charleston Church Shooting” just doesn’t sound important—maybe it’s because it’s not actually news worth running.

But most importantly, the distinction is critical because when we use “speaks out” for every act of speech, we diminish the moments when someone really does speak with courage. There are many important moments, blended in with the rest of the muck, when someone risks their reputation or, in some cases, even their wellbeing and safety, in order to speak out. We devalue critical speech when we treat all speech as equally courageous.

So, to this weekend’s usage: Is Deborah Dills, the woman who spotted the Charleston shooter on the road, speaking out? No. She is speaking. Deborah Dills did a great thing, and hers is a wonderful voice to hear. But I think she’d be the first to admit that she is not speaking under duress. Her moment of courage came before, when she followed Dylann Roof’s car. Now she is safe.

Earlier this month, though, the Times ran a piece of writing with the headline, “Letter From Azerbaijan Jail: Khadija Ismayilova Speaks Out.” It was written by a journalist there, who had been locked up for exposing the corruption in her country. This is a brave woman whose speech required courage. Her words were her protest. She was not just speaking, nor was she speaking up. She was speaking out.