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November 9th, 2005
Destinating / deja vu all over again
by Barbara Wallraff
Karen Moore, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I am an accountant. I recently encountered the following sentence, composed by a native English speaker, in an e-mail: ‘Facilities with surface transportation destinating at West Palm Beach P&DC should hold the mail at the origin facility until further notice.’ I am appalled that a corporation communicates with its professional clientele in such terms.”
Dear Karen: It may be worse than you think: Your correspondent didn’t write that sentence. It originated with the U.S. Postal Service, in a “service update” issued on Oct. 24, the day Hurricane Wilma hit Florida.
If you want to cut your correspondent a break, you could figure that he or she was afraid to change the postal service’s wording for fear of changing the meaning. But that’s not much of a reason to send weird jargon out into the wider world. People who don’t know what they’re telling other people should go find out before spreading the word.
If you want to cut the postal service a break, you might figure its staff was in no mood to weigh word choices while a hurricane was going on. If you want to consider the broader issue, though: Exactly what’s wrong with bad English is that the people who write it aren’t paying attention to what they’re saying, or else they’ve never learned how to communicate well. Either way, the person who did the writing is making readers do work that he or she should have done. Readers have to stop, ask themselves, What's this supposed to mean? and then puzzle it out: Ah, “destinating at” must mean “destined for” or “whose destination is.” And the “origin facility” is of course the “originating facility” or “the facility of origin.”
Sloppy writers used to appall me, too. But then I realized that they are telling us things about themselves they’d never tell us directly: They are hasty or inconsiderate, and they aren’t thinking clearly. When that’s true, it’s always good to know. Nowadays I feel more sorry for sloppy writers than horrified by them. Not only do they have trouble getting their points across but they alienate people when they try.
Rita Agabashian, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “I keep hearing educated people say, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ Isn’t that redundant? Doesn’t ‘déjà vu’ mean ‘all over again’?”
Dear Rita: Yes, pretty nearly. In English “déjà vu” originally meant an illusion that one had experienced something before when one really hadn’t. Strict constructionists still use “déjà vu” only that way, though most people now use it for the feeling that something that did happen before is happening again, and dictionaries give that meaning.
As for “déjà vu all over again,” it started out as a Yogi-ism -- something funny that Yogi Berra, the beloved New York Yankees catcher, said. (Other Yogi-isms include “The future ain’t what it used to be,” “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” and “I really didn’t say everything I said.”) The phrase resurfaced last year, in the highly unfunny context of an anti-war song. The singer and songwriter is John Fogerty, who in the Vietnam War era led Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fogerty is being sincere, not ironic, in the new song, so “déjà vu all over again” is inappropriate. It’s never appropriate unless you’re trying to be funny.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.
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