On Heartbreak, and Bix on Hirohito

In our culture of oversharing and social media, there is such an excess of verbiage that the words ‘must read’ or ‘essential’ have basically lost their meaning. The same is true for words like ‘heartbreaking’ — if it was really breaking your heart, you wouldn’t be on Twitter. What happens if you don’t read something ‘essential’? Usually, nothing, because the term has been turned into verbal click-bait.

Sometimes academics and journalists really ought to turn to real people, like taxi drivers, to reinvigorate their acquaintance with the English language. This morning I had a long chat with a taxi driver who described his former employees as ‘having about as much initiative and common sense as an armadillo.’ Now that is a chap who understands the power of words. And not once during our twenty-minute symposium did he use the term ‘heartbreaking’ (but, if it must be disclosed, he did recommend I meet him later at a local pub, a suggestion which I found anything but).

At any rate,  now that I have indulged my inner curmudgeon, if you’re interested in Japanese history, this still is ‘must-read’ piece in the New York Times. It also has a priceless (yes, another co-opted word that now means nothing, yet has to mean something) graphic. And the author of the piece, Herbert Bix, we describe neither as ‘essential’ nor as ‘heartbreaking’; he is, simply, an island of principled competence and solid research. Amid the 61 volumes and 12,000 pages of new official Hirohito biography assessed in Bix’s op-ed, there seems likely to be a handful of wasted words — Hirohito’s placenta gets more attention than his meetings with General MacArthur after September 1945 — but the task of reading (aye, must-reading!), at least, has been commenced.

Image design is by Rodrigo Corral and Tyler Comrie; photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress; via The New York Times.


  1. This was a very entertaining piece. Thank you.

    On the topic of the dichotomy between common-speak and the supposed regular form, there’s quite an amusing passage near the start of Pickwick Papers, where our beloved Mr. Pickwick attempts an interview with the local cab driver where both parties end up confounded.

    The realities of all natural languages mean that vocabulary and to a lesser extent grammar morph in ways that can entertain, isolate, and on occasion divide groups that would have been thought to be one.

    Keep up this “awesome” (good) work.

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