Sunday, November 12

Language for Sale

Here's what I don't get. I don't get why we (whoever that is, could be almost anyone in this case) allow ownership of words when, in reality, words belong either to all of us or to none of us (I lean toward the latter). But in this case, (as in so many other cases) reality just doesn't matter. We give words away all the time, and I think the worst offenders are those on the political left.

And we don't just let 'em slip away. Oh, no, that would be so passive. Here's how I think we really do it.

It seems like we go to a lot of trouble, actually. Someone takes the time to gather up the words (i.e. into a phrase), usually throw in a few weapons for good measure, wrap 'em up in celebratory yet serious wrapping paper (with pretty bows), and send them priority overnight to our friends at the Heritage Foundation. They receive them with glee (even right wing zealots love to get mail), open them up, get on the intercom and, with great excitement, call their compatriots to join them in the conference room, and-I-mean-now. WE GOT NEW WORDS!!! They do a little right wing dance, put their hairdos and suits back in place and sit down in their leather chairs at their 20 foot polished mahogany conference table, and get ready for business. First task, an age-old ritual called "Pass the Mirror". The person--oh, who am I kidding--the Man at the head of the table takes out of a special locked case a simple yet elegant hand-held mirror. For the next hour or so, the mirror is passed to the attendees one at a time, with great solemnity, and each, awed to be senior enough to be present at the Unveiling of the Words, takes it with the appropriate reverence. They don't need any instructions. Anyone who has made it this far knows the drill.

Look directly into the mirror. Do not shift gaze, do not glance at others to gauge their response.
Practice looking outraged, shocked, or disgusted (any of these are acceptable).
And then, slowly at first, but gaining in speed as comfort increases, say the Words.
Say the words again.
Pause between each utterance. Get the feel of the words in your mouth.
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
"Activist judges"..........
Repeat until they sound natural, like they emanated from your own heart and mind, or most ideally, like your grandmother used to say them to you as you sat on her knee.
[This last step can take up to five minutes, but gets much quicker over time]
Pass the mirror to the participant on your right. NEVER, and I repeat, NEVER pass to the left.
Congratulations. The Words are now yours.

Okay, okay. so I don't know that this is exactly the way it happens (I can hear my daughter berating me: "How do you know that's what happens?" She's a stickler for details). It is how I imagine it, and if it isn't like this, it's gotta be close. Maybe they get them in a memo: "Words of the Day" or "Words that Now Belong To Us - Today's Edition". Or maybe they come by Lemming Express. One thing I know for sure--by the next morning, those words are theirs. Theirs to define, theirs to use, theirs to stand by, theirs to announce to the press, which in nearly all of its forms immediately adapts to this designated usage. And this is where it falls so clearly into the category of things I don't get.

Where are the word police? Where are the protesters at the door with the placards reminding us of other potential definitions? Where are the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Homeland Security (which makes my mouth feel dirty even to just say its name), who are supposed to protect the public from delivery of dangerous packages? Where are the librarians who, with the best of dictionaries close at hand, can offer independent verification of definition? Where are the historians to remind us of the era in which the words had, in fact, a definition that differed by 180 degrees? Where are the high school English teachers and Rhetoric coaches to emphasize the importance of originality and specificity? Where are the moms with their ardent admonition: "So if Joey jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge [Empire State Building, insert regional landmark as appropriate] that means you have to do it too?"

I know. To the academic mind, it is a simple reminder that words do not exist in absolute terms, but only in the context of social institutions (yeah, I can write that way, but only do so under duress). Well, sure. But it still makes me burn. And the increase in heat that comes from rarely hearing anyone else yelling about it is damn near excruciating.

The right is really good at this. Ownership. And the Democrats (who do not particularly represent the left, but are the largest organized force that even pretends to sort of kind of partially speak for the interest of, shall we say, the more liberal element of society) don't do a darn thing about it. And neither do we. Yup, I mean you and me.

They say homosexual agenda. We (when we're not laughing) say okay. Or maybe we don't say okay, but we say we can't do anything about the words that they use or the silly ideas that they have. Bullshit.

They say activist judges. We let it go, as if there are no historical or current examples of judicial activism that stand in direct contrast to their definition (which we all understand, of course). Like, oh....say....the 2000 presidential election?

They say partial-birth abortion (a term coined by pro-life groups, not the name of a procedure, just in case you didn't know). Now this one, I will admit we haven't just "let go". Many people have really tried (The proper term is "D & X" or even "Late-term abortion") but none have been really had much effect on the usage of that term by the mainstream press, even those with editorial or production staff who heartily disagree with the phrase.

They say "family values" (my personal favorite). Don't even get me started on that one. You don't have enough time.

They say "special rights". They say "fringe element" (they're obviously not talking about themselves). They say "special interest groups" They say "creation science" (give me a break) They say "moral values". They say "God". They say "liberal media". They say "cloning". They say "parents rights" They say "no child left behind". Don't make me choke.

I don't get it. What is it? Are we afraid of words? Are we afraid to go over and snatch those words right back and yell NO! in our best Model Mugging voices? Do we lack the power of numbers that would allow us to redefine words and phrases (I don't think so, not even close). Do we imagine that we're not harmed by letting a small but powerful segment of the political landscape define our cultural and media vocabulary?

I know, I can hear you. The left has its words too. Okay, let's hear 'em. "Radical religious right". Okay. Ouch, that one hurts (isn't it kinda just descriptive?) you notice how few of these are right on the tip of the tongue?)...."culture of corruption" (?) "progressive politics" (?) "common good" (do you know what that means?), "social security lockbox" (ooh, that one's catchy). Do you see what I mean?

I take some umbrage (not much, but I'll take what I can get) that others are talking about this subject (not that you've heard of them, which is kinda my point, but still....). Check this out...pretty interesting, even if he is from Berkeley and so is potentially completely dismissable (just kidding!) You know, he's an academic, and probably says what I mean better (or longer, at the very least) than I can say it. So take a look and see what you think.

A quick excerpt from this book's introduction, published in July of this year (one of his other books is called "Going Nucular"--don't ya love it?):

"Talk to most people about "political language" and they're likely to think of the language that politicians and pundits use when they're trying to rouse public support for particular candidates and policies. Most of the books and articles on political rhetoric concentrate on the language of speeches and public pronouncements, rather than the language that ordinary people use when they are talking about political topics—not surprising, since until recently those were the only records of political language available, and scholars naturally congregate where the light is. But while the language of politicians and pundits is ultimately aimed at persuading people to act in certain ways, it can only get there by first persuading them to talk in certain ways. As John Dewey observed, it's only in private conversation that political opinion crystallizes, as people absorb the words they read or hear from on high and incorporate the ideas they stand for into the stories they tell about politics and their lives. Language is a kind of informal plebiscite: when we adopt a new word or alter the usage of an old one, we're casting a voice vote for a particular point of view......
.....And it doesn't take much longer than that to track the way class warfare waxes and wanes in the press and the online discussion groups according to the political climate, or to determine whether conservative or liberal writers are more likely to use the word redneck. As a window on public opinion, language can hardly take the place of polls and surveys. Language comes at the world from a different angle, more oblique but in its own way just as telling, if you read it right. The appearance of new phrases like "the liberal mindset" and "hidden agenda"; the shifting meanings of elite, liberal, government, or patriot; or even the fact that conservatives tend to say "you liberals" a lot more than liberals say "you conservatives"—all these things testify to the way political attitudes are embedded in the words that people use to express them. It's only when you look at those patterns of usage that you discover how deep the Democrats' linguistic problems go. Over recent decades, the left has lost the battle for the language itself. When we talk about politics nowadays—and by "we" I mean progressives and liberals as well as conservatives and people in the center—we can't help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.

Wow. I'm such a trend setter. Oh. Wait. He wrote the book before I wrote this. So maybe he's the trend setter, and I'm just a blind follower. Ick. But wait again. I didn't know about the book until just now when I did a google search (I searched under "language of the political left", just so's you know) as I was writing this entry. Well, in any case, I know there's at least one other person in the world (and probably a few who bought the book) who thinks as much about these things as I do (and here you are thinking I have too much time on my hands--someone wrote a WHOLE BOOK about this! Bet you'll never say THAT again! Ha!)

Not to leave this whole thing on a downer...we have made strides. The feminist movement was apparently powerful enough (imagine) to change (for many) "chairman" to "chair" (or chairperson, though I think that's a kind of silly word), to change (sometimes) "men" to "people"....

Side almost 7 year old noticed that on TV yesterday. She was watching one of her favorite science shows, this one about human evolution (the topic of choice for the last 8 or 9 months) or, as she puts it "hominids", and suddenly, she looks up and says "Why do they always say 'man' to mean men AND women"? (love that kid) I said "Well, language is funny like that. A lot of times, people use "man" to mean all people, men and women. Maybe they just think it's easier to say that one word, and it does technically MEAN all people" (or something kind of like that, I can't exactly remember). She looked at me in silence for a couple of minutes. Then she said "I think they say it becuase they don't think that women and girls are as important as men and boys". I couldn't help but smile, and say "Well, you might be right about that" (trying as hard as I can to be an even-handed parent, but geez....) [insert mental picture here of me doing a happy dance]

...and now back to our regularly scheduled programming....

Like I was saying, there have been some words or phrases that have been contributed to the general public discourse by the left. Global warming (though again, that's kind of just descriptive of a scientific phenomenon) came from the left. Actually, though it's kind of the ultimate irony, "Leave no Child Behind" came from the left, and stood in good stead for a pretty long time until it was co-opted by the Bush administration. I still think that was stolen, but it wouldn't be the first thing that was stolen, so at least it's consistent.

I guess what I've been trying to say is that I don't get why this happens, but we've got to do something about it. Remember Take Back the Night? Powerful, wasn't it? And sad that it has faded from its original intensity. We need do whatever it takes to Take Back the Language. Sign me up for the march.

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains unone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything."

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