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All About Peeve

Christian Chensvold on the phrase that won't die

By Christian M. Chensvold - October 26, 2005

Journalists who matriculated through their school's English Department, where language is meant to be savored, rather than the Journalism Department, where it is to be spilled with coffee on the commuter train, have long accepted that their media peers are incapable of using the term "ironic" correctly, and will forever use it to mean "oddly coincidental," rather than "poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended."

But in a twist that is wholly unironic, our latest pet peeve concerns not linguistic misuse, but overuse: This season, in both broadcast and print media, apparently it's all about the phrase "it's all about."

Speaking of clichés, I'll use the lazy reporter's right-click man, Google statistics, as the almighty cultural barometer: At the present moment, a Google News advanced search reveals 7,010 uses of the exact phrase "it's all about" in the past 30 days.

An embarrassing number of them are in headlines, and even the most stalwart media institutions are culpable.

As if the feckless overuse of this cliché weren't bad enough, as if the indeterminate "it" (as in the phrase "it's raining") in "it's all about" didn't encourage sloppy communication, the phrase itself suggests a kind of reducto ad stupidum in which any phenomenon can be boiled down to one essential quality, like the "Think Pink" number in the movie "Funny Face."

It's as if we're all too busy to analyze information in order to draw our own conclusions. We want to sound up on the latest news and trends over watercooler persiflage, but don't want to expel any energy to do so. And since the art of conversation has also been affected by our harried lives, glib chitchat is really all that's required of us. So we can now parrot with confidence that the war on terror is "all about oil," that oil is "all about corporate greed," and that corporate greed is "all about the rich getting richer," and other sophomoric generalizations.

Indeed, there's little reason to read beyond a headline that announces "it's all about," since all the article will contain is tedious analysis, and we already know the gist of it.

If this insidious phrase is more than just a passing buzzphrase and a true indicator of a new way of looking at the world, then the Information Age has not made the world more multifaceted in our eyes, but more one dimensional. "It's all about" is Cliff Notes for life, and one can only imagine how this catchphrase has influenced the mediocre student's favorite crutch: "'Hamlet': It's all about the ghost."

And thanks to our media-saturated age, these three little words have infected everyday discourse to the point where a broadcast reporter interviewing the victim of a natural disaster about what one gathers from one's home when forced to suddenly evacuate, is smugly told, "It's all about the heirlooms."

Like the word "like" in colloquial speech, "it's all about" is contagious. I've already had to delete several uses of "it's about" in this very essay. Drop the "all" and it can slip past you, but it's essentially the same thing.

If we're lucky, the winds of fashion will soon blow in the opposite direction. Just as slim silhouettes in fashion invariably yield to loose ones, and light colors to more somber hues, "it's all about" will eventually overstay its welcome and bring about its opposite: "It's not about."

Though it may sound clumsy, "it's not about," instead of spoonfeeding information in highly concentrated, bite-size piecea, actually stimulates mental activity by asking the reader to think for herself. For while the number of things that a cultural phenomenon is "all about" is de facto finite (in this case, one), the number of things it could be "not about" is theoretically infinite.

Observe how one's curiosity is immediately aroused by the headline "The Latest Celebrity Gossip: It's Not About Tom & Katie." Intrigued, the reader delves into the story in search of the answer, while his complacent assumptions of the world around him begin to crack and crumble.

Waking readers from their uninformed stupor—isn't that what the best journalism is all about?

Christian M. Chensvold is a Los Angeles-based reelance writer whose work has appeared in the LA Times, L'Uomo Vogue, Robb Report and many other publications. He blogs on fashion and the arts at Dandyism.net.



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