Clear or Clean

I’m a lover of precision, whether it comes to a competition obedience judge’s scores, the scale at my weigh-in, or the cleanliness of a kennel. But I’m especially fond of the correct use of words and phrases. A well-honed sentence, read or spoken, is delightful, conveying an image that is clear and precise.

It bothers me to see poor language, grammar, and spelling in books, both fiction and non-, in business use, or heard in broadcast journalism. Beyond troubling is the lack of clear thought, reflected by the atrocious mangling of the native language all over the Internet. But on this very wintery day, nothing upsets my applecart more than the lack of clarity and precision shown by the current crop of so-called communication professionals, specifically those commenting upon the road conditions.

Last night, snow and ice fell, creating precarious road conditions. Naturally, morning dawned with a.m. newscasts dominated by school closings, work delays, and most important for those who had to go to work, road status reports. The traffic reporter constantly referred to improvement of travel conditions once the roads were “cleaned.” This irked me to no end. With all the snow, slush, and muck, I couldn’t imagine the city putting the street sweepers to work. My feeling was that the word the professional broadcaster really meant was “clear.” This word, originating from the Latin clarus, meaning “bright” and “evident,” gave rise to the Old French cler, also meaning “clear,” and finally, the Middle English clere, which also meant “clear.” “Clear” means to be transparent, to be free from obscurity, which for me defines journalism and reporting.

And though the reporter’s choice, “clean”—which means to be “free from dirt”—can also mean to be “free from extraneous matter,” it just did not seem to be the most precise word for the wintery situation. “Clean” arose from both Middle and Old English, (clene and claene), but there are linguistic ancestors in both Old Frisian—klene—and Old High German—kleini—which both refer to size, chiefly “small” and “delicate.” Mayhap my mood is hardened to all this cold and snow, but these wintery roads need to be cleared, not cleaned.

To be clear as a communicator means to be sharply defined, distinct, and free from obscurity. As should be our wintery byways.