Archive for June, 2011

Language Matters

One of the no doubt many ways in which I am irritating includes a vehement adherence to the belief that the meaning of words and phrases matters.

While ‘reclaiming’ some of the more political ones is absolutely laudable and often causes a media-centered argument which can be quite informative and thought-provoking, the total misuse of various words due to a lack of exposure to the correct form and meaning is not something which should be defended, it is something to be corrected.

To take a neutral example, let me once again berate the editors who let slip ‘begging the question’ as a synonym for ‘raising the question’. Quite simply, this is not what it means, however many dictionaries include a definition which is essentially ‘some people incorrectly use this phrase to mean this, so if you happen to be in a conversation with them, try to meet them halfway’. (Find an example of correct usage of ‘beg the question’ here).

Other examples of this include the invented word ‘irregardless’ and the use of ‘impact’ as something other than a noun or transitive verb. You have not been ‘impacted’ by a really moving book or unfair legislation. Teeth are impacted. You, dear reader, may find that something has had an impact on you, or perhaps, have seen the impact of a meteor in that film. Again, dictionaries often note the use of ‘impact’ as an intransitive verb, usually with a note to the effect that ‘this is wrong but it appears in print a lot so I guess it’s ok, yeah?’

This is something I find frustrating in conversation, but absolutely unforgivably lazy in print. It is the editors who are allowing these garbled entries into our dictionaries and supporting the ‘common’ usage, as if being wrong is ok if everyone does it.

Meaning matters, otherwise all we have is a population of Mrs. Malaprops and Dogberrys making communication at once hilarious and frustratingly difficult.

Aside from this level of pedantry, there is also the difficulty of politically correct language. This has rather gone out of fashion since the 1990s, but remains important, especially since what usually happens is that a neutral term referring to a person or group is used metaphorically to imply something negative.

Language isn’t tangible, it is a set of forms, much like math, where everyone has to agree on the meaning imparted to said forms in order for it to function. If, for example, we use the term ‘gay’ when we mean annoying/bad/ugly, then the actual people associated with that term are tarred with the connotations.

I am most guilty of (and I am heartily ashamed of it) misappropriating the phrase ‘retarded’. Although the technical meaning is a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, and I would really like to believe that is what I mean, the reason it feels like an appropriate metaphor is the connotation with the mentally disabled. If I am referring to the actions of someone objectionable, or the frustration of useless or counter-productive political action, why can I not use the words ‘objectionable’ ‘unwise’ and ‘counter-productive’? Why do I let slip ‘that’s retarded’?

Another sneaky one is ‘crazy/insane’. What we mean is irrational, nonsensical, inexplicable, unbelievable, but the connotations again refer to a group of people with mental illness. Yes, I’m sure it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ – but you see what you did there? You’re metaphorically assuming that because you don’t agree with my argument that I am mentally ill, and, moreover, that this is bad, that the mentally ill cannot inherently make sense, which, as I’m sure you’ll agree, isn’t actually true.

As I age and become more aware of all of the ways in which bigoted metaphor sneaks into everyday parlance, I find it difficult to break myself of a linguistic habit. And every time I slip up, I realize how important it is to stop, because these metaphors are pervasive and do have an effect on what we mean.

Language is as we, collectively, use and invent it. This is why we must use it thoughtfully, however annoying that may be. Yes, it is intangible and abstract, but the way we communicate affects who we are and how we think.

In order to help myself and others who may wish to break an nasty linguistic habits, here is a list of better words to use.

For ‘begs the question’
– makes/inspires one (to) ask, invites/provokes/raises the question

For ‘impacts’ (intransitive)
– effects, changes, creates, generates, effectuates, enacts

For things that are not good
– bad, evil, troubling, distressing, lazy, useless, inapt, inane, futile, laughable, ludicrous, meaningless, trivial, preposterous, insulting, silly, dangerous, inconsiderate, unfair, boring, tedious, annoying, tiresome, frustrating, irritating, abrasive, offensive, exasperating, provoking, vexing, bothersome, disturbing, abominable, atrocious, awful, defective, crap, defective, ghastly, inadequate, incorrect, wrong, substandard, unacceptable, detrimental, deleterious, unhealthy, corrupt, criminal, vicious, vile, villainous, rancid, rotten, harsh, terrible, horrible, unpleasant

For people that are not behaving intelligently
– gormless, inept, foolish, self-defeating, dunce, exasperating, blockhead, dolt, senseless, inane, stunned, irrational, obtuse, naive, rash, puerile, jejune, stolid, thick, ignorant, stupid, silly, incoherent, disagreeable, unpleasant, unfair, unkind, insensitive, egotist, egoist, conceited, narcissist, jerk, ninny, oaf, rascal, jackass