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Off-limit expressions of the times

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- As a long-time admirer of Bobby Bowden, Florida State University's down-home football coach, I wonder if the emotional and linguistic fallout from the Sept. 11 horrors and other recent tragedies have not caught up with the ol' head 'Nole.

Have modernity and political correctness left Cousin Bobby -- to use one of his own words -- "bumfuzzled"? If the answer is yes, dadgummit, then many other ribald types are up that same creek without a paddle.

Bowden put his foot in his mouth most recently, Oct. 26, after the Fighting Irish thrashed his once-invincible Seminoles 34-24, on the strength of turnovers. While praising Notre Dame in his typical gosh-darned manner, Bowden said:

"That was the biggest risk when you play Notre Dame: turnovers. And I didn't think it was luck. I didn't think they were getting turnovers with luck. It's not. They work on it. They force 'em. And we probably would have been better off when we had the ball on our end of the field running the ball and punting it out. Don't take a chance on turning it over on your end of the field. That's the way they beat everybody. So just count us in the club. They're serial killers. They kill everybody the same way. No change."

Anyone paying attention to the news knows that Bowden has apologized for his colorful assessment of the Irish: "In a press conference after the game, I used an analogy that I should not have said, especially in the wake of recent events. I certainly meant no disrespect by the response I gave to the question."

Obviously, Bowden's "serial killers" image was taken as a direct allusion to the Beltway sniper killings and their subsequent grief. But the "serial killers" gem was not the first to make the salty coach wish he had had a teleprompter. Back in August, as the Seminoles were preparing for the new season, Bowden sought a slogan to inspire his garnet-and-gold-clad charges.

Being an old patriot, he was inspired by the words of Todd Beamer, the passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 who uttered "let's roll" as he and his fellow passengers attempted to overpower their hijackers over Pennsylvania. Accused of trivializing Beamer's heroic act and words, Bowden apologized.

That said, I wonder to what levels we will take our hypersensitivity over language. Perhaps we need to reassess the language of sports and the quips of select coaches and players after Sept. 11 and the Beltway shootings. But how many perfectly legitimate words and phrases will we penalize and sideline by trying to avoid insensitivity and indelicacy?

Will we muzzle coaches and deprive them of one of the best motivating tools in their toolbox: coach-talk -- that raw, colorful, sometimes-profane, locker-room lingo that often inspires athletes to play beyond their abilities?

My high school football coach, Bernard Irving, used "let's roll." My Harley-Davidson motorcycle club in Madison, Wis., also used it when we took to the road. Now, I, like coach Bowden, cannot use "let's roll" as a slogan without getting in trouble.

I propose that if we dress down people for using "let's roll" and "serial killers" when the intent clearly is praiseworthy, I want us also to ban some other words and phrases that grew out of pain and tragedy. We use countless expressions loosely even though some symbolize unimaginable human suffering and destruction.

Here is my short list of expressions, in no strict order of severity, we should take out of commission: train wreck (dozens of Amtrak deaths), hit-and-run, drive-by shooting, ground zero (World Trade Center), epicenter, fault line, earthquake, volcanic, civil war, Balkanized, jihad, holocaust, lynching (murders of blacks), meltdown (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl), poison cloud (Bhopal, India, where an estimated 16,000 people died and as many as 500,000 were injured from gas from Union Carbide plant; and now the most recent Russian gas crisis), bomb, blitz, survived.

In my profession, we use "hit-and-run" to designate shabby reporting: "hit-and-run journalism." We use "drive-by" in the same way: "drive-by journalism." Well, if we are to keep up with the times, my colleagues and I should stop using these expressions.

Perhaps I fret too much. One of my friends in San Angelo said that the use of "serial killers" and "let's roll" are examples of temporary linguistic hysteria.

"These are not real issues," she said. "It's a timing thing. In a few years, people will be free to use them again."

Curmudgeons hope she is right, because the fallout is getting curiouser and curiouser.

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