I recently came across the Dover reprint of Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. While it is an interesting collection of words Bierce thought were improperly used, I cannot recommend it. It has some use as a guide to closely related words confused with one another, but for that purpose I would recommend instead SI Hayakawa’s Choose the Right Word. Otherwise, it is largely filled with Bierce’s inability to understand metaphors, or to appreciate and accept common idioms, or to accept linguistic change. To satisfy a taste for disagreeable linguistic prejudices, Strunk & White is at least equally good. But Bierce’s book reminded me of a need for an analogous list of words: those that have recently become whips in the hands of abusive politicians and their slavish media (or is it the other way round?). So, here I begin to list some of those I find both common and objectionable, and why I find them objectionable. I hope to return from time to time and enhance it.
The idea, by the way, is to deal with the misuse of words that has a political intent. Most misuses do not arise from a political ulterior motive, but from a simple lack of clear thinking about what one is saying. An example is the use of “literal” to mean metaphorical. I won’t be going into such things here. By the way, the classic treatment of the political abuse of language is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. It’s well worth reading, but times change and so does language, despite the resistance of types like Bierce.
Climate Change. The right word is “global warming”, of course, or “GW” to be informal. The case for global warming was made a long time ago, and the idea that 7 billion and more humans operating at a high-burn economically can do so without impacting on their environment is about as stupid as a dog crapping in its own den. There aren’t many dogs that stupid, but there seem to be plenty of people to match them. To cater for them, their prejudices or their special interests the media needs a special language to euphemize discussions of GW; hence, “climate change”. It sounds so natural and inevitable (as Marco Rubio says, “climate is always evolving,” in a strange metaphor for an evolution skeptic − or anyone else). However, changes are sometimes permanent, which could be scary, so let’s change it to “climate variability”, which sounds impermanent and innocuous. Oh yes, let’s. That’s what the Coal-ition Victorian government has apparently ordered its employees in the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to use (note the reorganized name: putting environmental concerns in their proper place!). It’s a pity that so many environmentalists and others who take GW seriously regurgitate this mealy-mouthed language.
Entitlement. Joe Hockey’s promised to end the “Age of Entitlement”. The problem here is not so much the word as the corruption of its meaning. Entitlements are those things one has a right to or has earned. Why would any politician want to take away things people are actually entitled to? Hockey isn’t suggesting that: he’s promising to take away things people aren’t entitled to, in his opinion, such as, in particular, his money and the money of other rich people taken away in taxes. Smokin’ Joe should really be talking about taking away people’s Unentitlements, but then perhaps people would notice that they are actually entitled to them, which could be embarrassing for him.
Exceptional. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his fawning Democracy in America, US politicians have fallen all over themselves describing the US as exceptionally, nay, extraordinarily, nay, fantabulously wonderfulistic. It has become a sine qua non for being elected President. When I was little, I actually thought to myself “how lucky I am to have been born here.” There’s nothing exceptional about that thought: every country is full of people having it. The only things exceptional about American exceptionalism is how ordinary it is and how loud it is. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Genocide. It seems the murder of everybody and his uncle has become genocide in recent years. The media are constantly turning massacres into genocides, but the word means the attempted, or actual, extermination of a people, nation or ethnicity, as any decent dictionary will tell you. The bastadardization of its use makes cases of real genocide seem more acceptable, or at least more usual. It should be resisted.
Illegals. Our political leaders of both parties are quick to denounce refugees arriving in Australian waters as illegals. This is so despite the fact that numerous legal experts have reported to them that there is nothing illegal about them. Tony Abbott, and others, then claim that its their arrival that’s illegal, rather than the people, harking back to the “queue jumping” claims of prior governments. But that claim is just as false. Refugees, by definition, have to leave the place where they and their like are being tortured, murdered or abused. That means they have to reach some place new. And that means that some place new must be reached first. So much Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald appears to accept, but you can listen to him here blithely expressing the shameful point of view that such a place could not possibly be Australia: there are millions of people waiting their turn to come to Australia in squalid refugee camps “right around the world”, but those who come to Australia first to have their claims assessed are acting illegally. The honourable Senator simply ignores the point that they have to get some place first and that international law allows for that place to be Australia. In the world view of this government, Australia is uniquely free of any legal obligations normally incumbent upon those who agree to international treaties. It is an exceptionalism that exceeds in its way that current in the US. Well, I’m sure they don’t actually believe that; they are simply posturing for a gullible public and an even more gullible media. The correct word is “refugee“.
Pro-Life. “Pro-lifers” are pro-fetus and anti-women, of course. Recently, Senator Marco Rubio, in a round about attack on the GW consensus in science, declared that there is not just a scientific consensus that life begins at conception, but that it is a unanimous consensus. This, were it true, would offer genuine support for the self-promoting label anti-women campaigners have adopted. The immediate reaction to Rubio may be that words longer than three syllables may be too long for Rubio to handle; but no, Rubio seems to have actually meant it. But there is no consensus in science or philosophy as to what life is, or when it begins or ends. Instead, there are practical rules of thumb that get used in hospitals, such as cessation of brain activity or external viability of a fetus (not conception). In any case, a claim of unanimity is defeated by a single counter-example, and since Rubio’s strange expression of ignorance there have been many scientists objecting, so the claim is immediately defeated. This, of course, won’t stop right-wing obscurantists from claiming otherwise. Let’s call these people what they are: misogynists.
Reform. This has become a favored term for change, because it has favorable connotations. To reform something is to improve it, by, for example, removing obstacles to its proper function. But a government introducing as a “reform” a reduction in taxes for the rich should not be allowed to get away with this language unless they can justify it, as with a serious argument that the taxes removed were excessive, rather than an ideological commitment to the view that all taxes for the rich are excessive.
Socialism. I was surprised to read in the Los Angeles Times recently that Obama is a socialist. It’s pretty usual for right-wing hate mongers to say such things, but I expected a once-reputable newspaper to do a little better. The correct term, in many cases of word abuse, is “social democrat”: someone who believes that there is a place for a government to support social democracy by using its power to tax for the benefit of the commonwealth. “Socialism” by contrast refers to a theory that the best way to organize society is to give the means of production and distribution entirely to the state, which is hardly a view that industry-promoter Obama shares. There aren’t many socialists left these days, as the failure of the Soviet Union and similar enterprises has been taken by most, leftists included, that socialism is at best impractical and at worst pernicious. Many right wingers fail to notice the current absence of socialists, since everyone to left of neutral looks the same to them. The rest of us needn’t encourage their fantasies, however.
Terrorism. Every attack or act of violence attributable to Arabs or Muslims can nowadays freely be called terrorism. Any similar act by others is just “random violence” or an act of lunacy (see Bernard Keane’s “Why white terrorism isn’t terrorism”). But terrorism is political violence intended to terrorize, so, for example, the explicitly political murder of two police officers in Las Vegas by a white couple was clearly an act of terrorism. Yet the language of news reports is one of “shootings” or, perhaps, at most “shooting rampage”. Terrorists aren’t white, unless they have beards and rant about the Koran, or else were French and long dead. But, once again, decrepit, old, white, male commentators need not be accommodated.
The People. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The claim that “the people” refers to individuals is either ignorance or a lie. “The people” is a collective noun, referring to a collective. Of course, there are sentences and contexts where the phrase has the meaning gun sellers, manufacturers and nuts prefer to substitute for its actual meaning in the constitution. “The people were bamboozled by specious arguments” implies that everyone concerned was bamboozled. But there is no such usage in the second amendment. As if this wasn’t clear enough, the amendment specifically sets the context by reference to a well-regulated militia. Lone gun nuts shooting people in cinemas were not what the writers of the constitution had in mind, whatever a right-wing packed Supreme Court may say about it. We The People: Take Back Our Language!
Combat semantic abuse: don’t let Murdoch and his political minions own the debate! If you spot linguistic abuse, please make a comment; I’ll be happy to add it to my list if it fits my criteria (which are not actually politically biased, despite my own political bias).