Good old language, that wonderful, uniquely human form of communication. Language is what we use to describe pretty much everything, from our inner thoughts and feelings to dump trucks. Used properly, it is a sublime form of communication, removing all barriers to understanding and even, in the form of poetry, elevating our souls. The flip side to mastering language is using it to deceive. Not necessarily out and out lying, since that’s an art in itself, but misappropriating words to give them other meanings, sort of making it an anti-communication device. Take the word gay, for example, once a very descriptive and fun word describing an especially giddy and playful sort of happiness. Gay is now lost to us since it is used exclusively to identify homosexuals. Are all gays gay? All the time? That would be hard to imagine and they’d be a pretty annoying and shallow sub-set of humanity if they were.
Happily, that’s not the case, and gay people seem to run the full gamut of human personalities. Another word is parent. Once it was a noun but like many other words (like party and mentor) it is being forced into double duty as a verb. Then there’s combinations of words that negate the meaning of both of them, like “alternate reality” or “elastic definition.” Those phases mean nothing, or anything you want them to, and that’s the opposite of the aim of language. Language should not be ambiguous. It’s a form of communication and description, and the more precise our language, the better we have communicated. We need not surrender to either duplicity or stupidity when it comes to our language, in this case English, but the suspicion here is that the trend towards appropriating language for purposes other than communication is universal. Here’s some English words that we are letting get away from us:
Organic: Pretty much everything that is not a stone, an inert gas or water is organic, with our dictionary assuring us it means: “of, relating to, or derived from living matter.” So you have all sorts of people marketing the food they produce as “organic” and you have to say to yourself, “well, I would hope so,” organic being a pretty minimal standard to be met to qualify as food. And when the word organic is coupled with the words “all natural,” count on the price to triple, but not necessarily the taste or nutritional benefits. There’s a lot of foods being labeled as organic and a lot of fools buy it without asking the question “Organic what?” Shit is organic, too, and very natural. So is uranium, so maybe using some more accurate words like healthy or wholesome to describe the ingredients in your food products just might give us a better idea of what they are worth.
Natural: Like organic, the definition of the word natural is being rendered meaningless. The fact is, so far nothing has ever occurred that is outside of nature, not even once since the beginning of time. Something man-made is not unnatural, otherwise people themselves have to be considered not a part of nature. And if we are not part of nature then what are we doing here? Are we something we dreamt up? (Now there’s a can of worms.) So the claim “all natural ingredients” has a pretty broad definition. For something to be truly unnatural, it would have to violate the immutable laws of nature, and so far nothing has. Stones don’t roll uphill on their own, light hasn’t sped up or slowed down and water still boils at precisely 212 degrees Farenheit. Monosodium glutamate is just as natural as a beaver dam, something that was put together from different existing materials by living creatures, all said creatures a part of nature as we know it. While MSG is not such a great thing, neither are beaver dams if you don’t happen to be a beaver.
Neo-Conservative: There’s nothing “neo” about being conservative. Either you are or you aren’t and if you are, you haven’t invented anything new to warrant the neo label. Had the Neo-Con movement produced any new ideas, on the other hand, then they would be welcome to their neo, but that wasn’t the case. The word “conservative” implies the avoidance of innovation, to conserve what has always been. Here’s the dictionary definition: “holding to traditional values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.” As a noun, conservative is defined: ” a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes.” So that whole “Conservative revolution” back in the 1990’s was a contradiction in terms. There is absolutely nothing revolutionary about conservatism.
Liberal: Defined as “open to new behavior and willing to discard traditional values,” or in politics: “favoring maximum individual liberty in political or social reform,” the term liberal does not always mean these things lately. Many liberals follow what is by now old and traditional policies and ideas, often ignoring the rights and liberties of others to disagree with them. Truly liberal ideas like granting homosexuals equal rights under the law meet with a lot of resistance from a lot of nominal liberals. Maybe if homosexuals offer to give the word gay back to us, liberals might change their tune and stop being so repressive and, well, conservative.
Text: Like parent and mentor, the word text has been pressed into double duty, this time not by linguistic laziness but by an invention. When you are using this recent invention, you are not “texting,” but are sending a text message, just as when you are writing or mailing a letter you are not “lettering.” Any other use of the word would be stupiding.
Spinning: This word can mean many things, but none of them have to do with the truth or actual facts. You can spin the truth until you’re dizzy and the sky will still be just as blue as it was before you started lying your ass off by misusing the medium of language. What is, is, period, amen, and no amount of spin doctoring, public relations, taking quotes out of context or offering “alternate explanations” can change that. And admitting a “misstatement” doesn’t mean much either. We already have plenty of synonyms for that: lie, prevarication,untruth, falsehood, and so on.
These are just a few of the words we misuse in our lazy pursuit of anti-language and the cynical practice of non-communication. While languages constantly evolve, expand and change with the times, the idea is always to give us more and better options to express ourselves with as much clarity as we possibly can. In today’s English language we have at our disposal more that 10 times the vocabulary that existed when William Shakespeare was writing. He did okay conveying his ideas, some of them quite complex and elliptical. The least we can do with our expanded arsenal is to speak and write plainly and clearly and to add to the joy and power of language, not detract from it. All we have is each other, so let’s treat the way we communicate with the same respect and love that we feel for others. Barring that, if you hate everybody, at least have the nerve to make it crystal clear.