Posts Tagged 'language'

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

Le Mot Juste

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Everyone has there own personal pet peeves when it comes to misuse of language.

“Irregardless” sounds to some like nails on a chalkboard. They mean either ‘regardless’ or ‘irrespective’.

“Could care less” is lazy phrasing – try putting the n’t back in.

“Begs the question” does not mean raises the question, it refers to a logically fallacious statement which assumes itself to be true without proof.

And “Feminist” does not mean angry man-hating lesbian .

But, since so many people seem to take it that way, feminists – who are really most sensible people if the correct definition is used: a person who believes the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men – have to refuse such a title with abject horror.

Nadine Robinson in the Daily Observer (via Equality Myth), says “Please don’t use the “f” word. I may be a feminist, but I don’t want the label.” She goes on to describe experiences of sexism in school and at work, being held back and having to actively deny being feminist to avoid castigation.

People who genuinely believe that women belong at home raising children and keeping house benefit from using ‘feminist’ like an epithet and confusing it with some sort of sinister anti-male agenda, because, supposedly, if the woman is not at home making babies and muffins, this makes life worse for men. As they cannot perceive a co-existence of feminism and love for men or attractiveness or calm and happiness, they conflate the word with the opposite of all of those things. If people who hold this to be true are in positions of power, then women within the same organisation have to deny the (misused) label in an attempt to maintain or gain status.

Other women have noted this seeming change in definition, particularly among younger women. In the BBC 4 documentary, ‘Women’, Vanessa Engle interviews women with children, stay-at-home and working, looking at the division of labour in running the households, some of whom refuse the label of feminist (and whose husbands start to feel really awkward when Engle starts asking who does the chores), and the parents of some younger activists who also dislike the term and seem confused by the activity – one woman’s parents thought she was hypocritical because she was an activist but also wore make-up. These were in glaring contrast to her interviews with aged activists who, either smiling and active or ill, sad, and reclusive, still felt that feminism was undeniably necessary. (The documentary raised a lot of questions for me about the current focus of feminism, and drew some criticism for its focus on middle class white women and exclusion of key activists and groups).

I’ve mentioned before the problems of sexism, as well as the problem with ‘isms’ in general, but in this case, whatever one thinks of the validity of the label, its meaning has been perverted through misuse.

Although English is a bastard language – happy to steal and happy to change with the vernacular – it is broad and deep enough to contain precision. It is wonderful when people can claim words that have been used as derogatory, slowly drowning the ugly connotations with dark humour and a defiant, oppositional joy. (I’m thinking of the ‘n’ and ‘c’ words and perhaps that other ‘f’ word – in both cases, there is still a ways to go before they entirely clean, and of course there is constant refreshment of other equally insulting terms – I’ll leave my wroth for ‘that’s so gay’ for another time).

I think in this case, as with begging the question and ‘irregardless’, we can embrace our inner Lynne Truss and engage in a zero-tolerance campaign for accuracy.

Feminism is about a belief in equality between the sexes (and has a historical record of avidly supporting other people seeking equality and civil rights). It’s called ‘feminism’ instead of ‘equalitism’ or whatever, because at its inception, men were in the position of power, and the term needed to refer to the people it represented i.e. women.

Don’t let people tell you it means something else. If someone started using ‘Protestant’ to mean ‘psychotic vegan pterodactyl’ it wouldn’t gain any wider use because clearly that is not what it means. Obviously, no one really gains anything from that definition.

A heavier and more accurate example might be if someone started to use the term ‘Jew’ to mean, oh, let’s say ‘money-grubbing, baby-eating, messiah-killer’. Is this accurate use of the language? No. Does the fact that some groups of people do say and/or think this mean that Jews should have to change their name? NO, because clearly there is an agenda behind this misuse of terminology. An evil, hateful agenda, the prevalence of which is disgusting and encourages all sorts of violence.

No one is yet trying to kill feminists – well, except for abortion providers – but the attitude is the same; by trying to redefine the term, they weaken the situation of the people it describes and/or attempts to assist through mockery and dismissiveness in order to maintain the status quo or retreat to a supposed golden age where men were men, women were house-keepers and nannies, and everyone knew what was what.

In the face of this we should be defiant. We should refuse out of belligerent logical accuracy to allow this term to be corrupted by those who want to refuse and deny the right equality.

Because even if they eventually pull some irrefutable god-writing-on-a-wall proof that women are genetically inferior and flourish only in domestic and child-rearing environments (in spite of the billions of women evincing the contrary), their use of the word would still be inaccurate.

I am a feminist. And I know what that means.


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