Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage
Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
When Words Fail
Most of us consider language as intending to inform, persuade or denote meaning. But scholars are beginning to recognize that hidden emotions and feelings are an important part of the mix. Decision-making in business, politics and science incorporates pre-conceived ideas and biases which can have a profound effect on outcome. Innermost thoughts blend into our perceptions unconsciously. Sometimes these biases preclude careful thinking, for once ideas have been categorized, their verbal expressions become automatic, stereotyped or inappropriate. The reverse is also true, for certain words can have a profound effect in framing new thought. Ask any adman on Madison Avenue or a politician engaged in civil strife.
When mankind emerged from the cave to cluster around the campfire, he wanted to communicate beyond vocalized grunts not only to convey physical needs but to express his feelings as well. Body language no longer sufficed. During the hunt, baring one's teeth might appear as a threatening signal, but it might also be a smile to indicate joy, contentment or satisfaction. How better to convey this distinction than through language? But while assisting human interaction, language also complicated it.
One way language effects our lives is through variety. Psychologists tell us that newborns have a pretty limited pallet of emotions: comfort, discomfort and fear. But as the baby learns to walk or talk, it also gives evidence of anger, frustration and delight, feelings that are soon put into words. This continues throughout life, influenced by time, circumstance, education, geography, importance and culture, all reflected in language. The more important something is, the more terms to describe it. Eskimos had many words to describe snow, for texture or quantity determined what activities were possible. Margaret Mead was amazed at the hundreds of variants of the word sweet potato in her anthropological study, a crop vital to the Samoan economy. In contrast, the defeated Japanese had to incorporate American terms like girlfriend and boyfriend whole hog because such concepts, as well as the words, did not exist in that society before World War II. The first had to do with physical survival. The latter with the emerging social and emotional life. Japan was a defeated country and it behooved them to adapt as quickly as possible, not only politically, but in every other respect. One can wonder which came first, the new words, the behavior, or the feelings that are expressed.
Shrinking the lexicon can have the opposite effect. George Orwell in his book 1984 creates an imaginary dictatorship that creates the concept of Newspeak, suggesting that mind control is possible through language limitation. Without words like freedom or individuality, the concepts cannot exist. By limiting words that express emotion, the feelings will also dissipate. Since the word good presupposes its opposite, there is no need for bad, hence the use of ungood. To enhance good, one need only add a prefix: plusgood. When done across the entire language, subtlety disappears.
Modern advertising has a further effect. In technologically sophisticated Western society, the list of words describing love, affection and friendship continues to grow as does reflected behavior. Honey, Darling and Dearest are used with abandon, with hugs and air-kisses replacing the formal handshake. In our capitalist society where greeting cards, florists and restaurants add much to the Gross National Product, commercials touting their wares have expanded the lexicon of human interaction as well as concepts of correct behavior. One need only compare today with the 19th Century and Life with Father or I Remember Mamma, a time before billboard, radio and TV advertising to see its effect.
Wartime and cultural conflict generate their own language, with words carefully chosen to soften the harshness of death and destruction, a grim necessity during war, albeit a violation of innate self-preservation. Gentler terminology might also surround the actual to minimize their sting, laudatory words to enhance their power. In The Iliad, Homer declares that "if you are very valiant, it is a god, I think, who gave you this gift". Later, he admonishes "always to be bravest and to be preeminent above others". The juxtaposition of valiant, god, bravest and preeminent with the concept of war changes its frightening aspect to being most worthy of pursuit. Aristotle says that "We make war that we may live in peace", following a somewhat different format by actually defining war as its opposite. And Moses, in explaining his command against the Canaanites asserts that "The Lord is a man of war", assuring his people of heavenly support.
During the Middle Ages, conflict was tied to chivalry and honor, a further expression of the times. The ladies were fair, the knights formidable, the enemy treacherous. In LeMorte d'Arthur, Thomas Malory describes Medieval battles fought upon magnificent steeds by knights in gleaming armor, a Camelot worthy of late-night TV. If there is any bloodshed, its mention is only as a passing reference. Sir Uwayne fights Sir Edwarde and Sir Hew "like men possessed, for ... five hours". Finally, "Sir Uwayne killed Sir Edwarde with a stroke that split his head down to the vertebrae." Any blood, pain or outcry goes unnoticed by the author. Likewise, the disposition of the body. Shortly after, Sir Hew loses courage and falters, begging for mercy, something our gallant hero grants without hesitation. Then the two walk arm in arm into the castle, ready to patch up their differences in fellowship over a brew or two. The conflict has ended amicably, all things considered, and we learn through these descriptions that the society wanted warfare to be perceived in a positive or even glamorous light.
Individual words can also take on a variety of meanings. The term cool has had many definitions over the years ranging from unfriendly (eg: "She treated me with cool indifference.") to describing attractive manners (eg: "He is not only handsome, but really cool!"). During America's Civil Rights movement, there was a plethora of new expressions for both sides, underscoring the rising intensity of feeling. The term lunch-counter liberal had two meanings, depending which side you were on. The same was true of women's march for voting rights in the 20's and Women's Lib forty-five years later. Some women burned their bras in defiance of perceived stereotypes. But bra-burner quickly became a pejorative for those on the other side.
Then as the Women's movement found greater acceptance, its influence expanded to include what we now refer to as gender inclusive, naming hurricanes for both men and women, and substituting the word man with human or person as in humankind or mailperson instead of mankind or mailman. Grammar also had to adapt since the generic he or his was no longer acceptable, as in "The student should bring his books to class every day." Instead, writers compensated by using the awkward his/her, or worse, the totally incorrect their, an error in subject-verb agreement. Again, the changes have become embedded in our American lexicon.
This was also the time of the Vietnam War, bringing about a set of euphemisms such as vertical incursion instead of bomb, collateral damage instead of non-combatant casualties, and pejoratives such as gook, intended to demean the enemy and make war less of a moral challenge.
Today's linguistic struggle has less to do with precision or linguistic color than being politically correct -- a euphemism meaning to be inoffensive, for Civil Rights and Women's Lib has left its mark not only socially but in how we speak. Newspapers revised their Style Books and now require writing to be gender inclusive. They also refrain from identifying race or gender in their news stories unless it relates directly to events. Churches are going over their hymnbooks to ferret out words such as man and mankind, changing them whenever possible to person or humankind. God the Father continues to be a problem, sometimes requiring an entire change of wording in order to make any sense at all.
Literature, especially from the distant past, remains a current bone of contention. One side says these works are classics and represent their time which any intelligent reader would recognize. The other side insists that we must protect our children from exposure to the social mores which we have gratefully gone beyond. So the questions persist. Should the then commonly used n___-word be expurgated from standards such as Huckleberry Finn? Might some of the perspectives in the book, The Last of the Mohicans, offend Native Americans and need to be stricken? What about The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe or The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare? With conflict already rife in the Middle East, one hardly needs to add more fuel to that fire with added anti-Semitism. Do they attest to feelings better left unexplored, or is it the task of language to bring thoughts, feelings and attitudes into the light of day to be carefully examined? Which came first?
In his book, Don't Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff discusses framing debate linguistically, arguing that one's choice of words makes a difference. Does it matter whether we call someone an insurgent or a freedom fighter? Does equal mean the same as fair? How about assassinate versus murder? If terminology is not first agreed upon, communication can falter. More important, it does not convey the truth.
Francis Bacon says that "knowledge is power", and Dante declares that "you were born to ... follow virtue and knowledge". Socrates equates it to the ultimate value, insisting that "there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." But if knowledge encompasses feelings and opinions as well as facts and reasoning, its language defines who and what we are. We can only assume that thoughts and words are inseparable. If true in the here and now, it is also true in the way we are remembered by those whose lives we have touched. As such, we might look to Descartes' saying, "I think, therefore I am", as including the colorful ways all thoughts are expressed. The "pen is mightier than the sword". Whether used for good or ill, language is power and worthy of our attention.
"When words fail, wars begin. When wars finally end, we settle our disputes with words."
contributed by Beth Staas