Notes on Cant—and Other Ways of Saying What We Don’t Mean

Notes on Cant—and Other Ways of Saying What We Don’t Mean

Notes on Cant—and Other Ways of Saying What We Don’t Mean

A close relative of hypocrisy, cant speech conceals the iron fist of conformity inside the velvet glove of cliche.


The truth is,” wrote Lord Byron to his publisher in 1821, “that in these days the grand ‘primum mobile’ of England is cant; cant political, cant poetical, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant, multiplied through all the varieties of life.” In the United States in 2021, we have a great deal of cant, but the word itself isn’t well-known. Cant is the false coin of sincerity.

In a country where few literate persons can name three living poets, “cant poetical” will hardly be thought a major annoyance. On the other hand, we have plenty of “cant religious.” From the rafters of 1,500 megachurches and across the AM dial in the Bible Belt, it drawls out everlasting prayers for your soul (“Jesus is your personal friend”), but religious cant has never been the comfort food of the respectable persons who guide the culture of CNN and NPR, The New York Times and The New Yorker. It is chiefly with them that we are concerned.

Cant words or phrases are close neighbors of cliché. They offer a reassuring patter, somewhere between sound and sense, mild exhortation and sing-along, the audible cement of agreeability. You may define cant by relation to its obverse, rant. When, after riding down the Trump Tower escalator in 2015, Donald Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” what he was doing was rant. When, the year before, President Barack Obama told the graduating class at West Point, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” that was cant.

Samuel Johnson’s third listed meaning of the word, in his Dictionary of the English Language, captured the relevant mood: “A whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.” No matter how trite and saccharine, the words go down easily, but they are not innocent. Between cant and hypocrisy, said William Hazlitt, there is a family resemblance. If hypocrisy means professing to believe what you don’t in fact believe, cant is affecting to admire a thing a great deal more than you actually do: “the voluntary overcharging or prolongation of a real sentiment.” A few specimens follow:

§ Narrative. “Democrats will lose control of the narrative if the numbers at the border keep growing.” The descendant of “story” and “scenario,” “narrative” came in when the handlers caught a far-off suggestion from literary theory; another source was the therapeutic conceit that your life can only be understood as a narrative. “The narrative” may now apply to every angle or approach of a partisan strategy, conferring on it the sort of fictive unity that guides an epic poem, a novel, or a historical “grand narrative.” The usage claims sophistication for the user and blurs the line between truth and sophistry.

§ Conversation. The word has by now almost supplanted “discussion,” “argument,” “disputation,” and “debate.” A soft insinuation protects it—if it’s just a conversation, why would anyone avoid taking part? But you can’t raise a challenge without tipping it toward argument or disputation. On political, moral, educational, and civil-society subject matter, “conversation” supports the serial return to a limited range of topics or emphases; the propaganda element is justified by the democratic feel of the word itself. The conversation is always open.

§ Silo. Over time, this has picked up a pejorative sense, maybe from school-of-management usage. Sectors of a corporate organization shouldn’t be “siloed,” their knowledge segregated from one another. Marketing has a lot to learn from employee relations; so does HR from tech. The academic prestige of interdisciplinary work brought contempt to the idea of departmental silos that hoard their expertise (“All culture is political, and all politics is cultural, so why do we put them in separate silos?”). Relevant association: granary silos, in which foodstuff is preserved rather than shared with the needy.

§ Weaponize. “The Republican Party has weaponized free speech.” That would be literally true if all defenders of the First Amendment became apologists for the wildest expansions of the Second Amendment. Otherwise, it is a cheap way of saying that speech I don’t like constitutes a physical assault. “Weaponize,” in other contexts, works as shorthand for a rhetorical analysis that would require many words; it obviates the necessary explanation by assuring readers that the thing is very wrong. After all, it’s a weapon.

§ Toxic. Another word whose sense migrated from the literally poisonous to the metaphorically unpleasant (“like poison”) and then back to the literal (“I’m sorry, that whole way of thinking is toxic; I won’t go there”). Exit the debate, enter the conversation.

§ Reckoning. Drawn from agonistic pop fiction and film—was there an Exorcist 7: The Reckoning?—and imported to activist journalism in the Trump years, this word for the bill at a restaurant was initially transferred to the debt of a guilty nation to an oppressed race; it is now applied in smaller settings, often with help from “collective.” An authoritative and somber word; the mainstream media won’t give it up lightly.

§ Existential threat. Popularized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise the stakes and the temperature (without fact or argument) in his campaign to get the US to destroy the military capabilities of Iran. Now applied to budget cuts.

§ Who we are as a people. Cant in the old sense—religious, moral, political, and poetical, all at once. Equally at home in the speeches of Obama and the obiter dicta of the JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

§ The right side of history. A cheer for the home team, as if history were your personal friend. Previously favored by the instigators of the Thousand-Year Reich and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Why should any of this trouble us? The reason is that these slack verbal indulgences only pretend to serve as innocuous filler. They create a tacit prejudice, a vaporous presumption of instant concurrence, in an area where honest thinking would have to pursue the subject much longer. They signal inclusiveness and a cost-free conformity, while brushing aside every plausible objection to the suitability of a metaphor, the justice of a comparison, the hyperbolic nature of a given claim.

You may say the examples above don’t deserve the name of cant, which wants whole sentences and paragraphs to breathe in. That is an honorable purist objection, true as far as it goes. Still, these atomic particles illustrate the verbal medium of the chattering class in one important subspecies, the jargon of knowingness. Consequential meaning-markers in the high corporate world, they are rarely blocked from the discourse (“discourse”! We almost forgot you!) of the social sciences, the div schools, and the law schools—those shiny, slippery word-fruit that we pluck, eat, and send into the world without a second thought.

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