When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
There is nothing “mere” about semantics!
Now, President Zero: The final devolution of Presidential rhetoric
When orators and [audiences] have the same prejudices, those prejudices run a great risk of being made to stand for incontestable truths.
All that is necessary to raise imbecility into what the mob regards as profundity is to lift it off the floor and put it on a platform.
George Jean Nathan
Cancel culture comes for Dr. Seuss. What next?
As we see censorship, it is a stupid giant traffic policeman answering ‘Yes’ to ‘Am I my brother’s copper?’ He guards a one-way street and his semaphore has four signs, all marked ‘STOP.’
Franklin P. Adams, Nods and Becks, 1944
The problem of freedom in America is that of maintaining a competition of ideas, and you do not achieve that by silencing one brand of idea.
Max Lerner, Actions and Passion, 1949
Latest language crime: “equity”
[In George Orwell’s 1984] Syme [a Party official] encourages Winston to recognize that the ‘whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought’. He explains that ‘in the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it.’ Syme refers to the fact that individual thought, rebellious or ‘unorthodox’ thoughts will be impossible and so, too, will the true concept of individual freedom. Each concept will be expressed in just ‘one’ word. Any ‘subsidiary’ meanings will be rubbed out and forgotten. (55).The party controls the mind through the control of language (Newspeak), the control of history (the past) and the control of war/ enemies, [via] the process of DoubleThink.
The language of Fox News: Two views
‘Why can’t human beings live simply and naturally?’ The trouble is that, as Susan K. Langer has said, ‘The symbol-making function is one of man’s primary activities. . .It is the fundamental process of the mind, and it goes on all the time.’
S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action
If you are on a continuous search to be offended, you will always find what you are looking for, even if it isn’t there.
Latest language abuse: “deprogramming Trump supporters”
Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.
We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things; and once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them.
To believe with certainty we must begin with doubting.
— Stanislaus I of Poland
American chaos: Did Trump incite?
Where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up.
— Aristotle, 4th c. BCE
The people are capable of good judgment when they do not listen to demagogues.
— Napoleon I (1814-5)
Demagogy enters at the moment when, for want of a common denominator, the principle of equality degenerates into a principle of identity.
— Saint-Exupery, 1942
The current chaos begins with words, or as Proverbs 18:21 has it, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”
Riots in DC: the power of conflicting narratives
On Jan. 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln spoke before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, about “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” During that address, he said:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Lincoln’s message: no other nation is strong enough to destroy America. We would do it to ourselves. And it’s happening.
P.c. atrocities roll on; linguists still silent
Amen. < Old English, from ecclesiastical Latin, from Greek amēn, from Hebrew ‘āmēn ‘truth, certainty’, used adverbially as expression of agreement, and adopted in the Septuagint as a solemn expression of belief or affirmation.
[The version I learned in Hebrew School:] The Talmud teaches homiletically that the word amen is an acronym for אל מלך נאמן (ʾEl melekh neʾeman, “God, trustworthy King”), the phrase recited silently by an individual before reciting the Shma. (Wikipedia)
Christmas message: On the emptiness of vague “hope”
“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.”
— Proverbs 13:12
“He that lives upon hope will die fasting”
— Benjamin Franklin
“The reason of idleness and crime is the deferring of our hopes.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There is nothing so well known as that we should not expect something for nothing – but we do and call it Hope.”
Edgar Watson Howe
UNIFORMITY = DIVERSITY: Modern Newspeak hits Orwellian rock-bottom
“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
— George Orwell
On titles, respect, and doctor-flaunting: who’s a “doctor”?
“Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.”
I admit, they had me. I really thought that Jill Biden was an MD. It’s not implausible that such a high-level official as the VP would have a high-achieving wife. But then the truth came out, and I realized I’d fallen for “doctor-flaunting.”
There are implicit and subtle sociolinguistic principles that govern the public use of doctor (this list excludes all the countless hucksters and quacks who have bestowed the spurious title “doctor” on themselves):
On slogans — especially the one that dominates our lives
“Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords”
-Robert Louis Stevenson
(NOTE: a catch-word is technically what we today would call a “pull-out quote”; I’m using it in a broader sense here, to refer to slogans, mottoes, taglines, and catch-words.)
I keep quoting Stevenson because his observation is so true and has been for a long time. We love slogans even more than we love narratives and conspiracies…because slogans are the verbal equivalent of Paxil and Wellbutrin. They encapsulate whatever some leader or group of people decides is the best summary of what the product, movement, party, etc., is all about, while they make us feel good about it.
The welcome end of Presidential tweeting
“Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable.”
“It is terrible to speak well and be wrong.”
Those of us who have worked first-hand at speechwriting (my experience was corporate, not political) understand what goes into a CEO/senior management speech, how it is assembled, how it must touch the audience or articulate a particular point of view or policy.
Angry periods: P.c. virus spreads to punctuation
A period is to let the writer know he has finished his thought and he should stop there if he will only take the hint. Art Linkletter, A Child’s Garden of Misinformation (1965)
To a generation of children who are trained to be sensitive to an ever-increasing body of words deemed offensive because of their perceived meanings, who are “triggered” by these words and need “safe spaces,” it is, for the P.c., just a small jump from reading new meanings into words…to reading new meanings into marks of punctuation.
Triumph of the TelePrompTerTM: What has it done to public speaking?
Here comes the orator, with his flood of words and his drop of reason.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1735
[Disclaimers: I am not a conservative, a Republican, or a supporter of Donald Trump. This is about the relationship of a speaker to his speech.]
The ubiquitous double screen has triumphed in Presidential politics. We now have a candidate who is totally reliant on script, whose public speaking skills do not enable him to compose and deliver an organized, coherent 30-second answer to a substantive or policy question.
“Alternate facts”: Latest language crime
You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan)
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. (attrib. James Madison)
Just the facts, ma’am. (Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet)
Gender-neutral “they”: Let it start here
Many languages. . .have no gendered pronouns. English needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and as Winston Churchill said about democracy as a form of government, “they” is the worst option, except for all the others.
-Anne Fadiman, Harper’s, August 2020
Language changes, perhaps in response to social pressure or a communicative need – or for no functional reason at all, as with hone in on replacing home in on, mainly, I guess, because the two sound alike, hone connotes focus and sharpness, and people forget what the home in home in on means.
Political correctness — ubiquitous and relentless
“The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.”
“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Language change — up close
“Language change is not a disease, any more than adolescence, or autumn are illnesses.”
― Language Change: Progress or Decay?
“It’s hard to see what the problem is. Language speakers and writers have always been inventive, and texting is just one further example of human creativity. As David Crystal has expressed it: ‘it..is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative… In texting, we are seeing, in a small way, language in evolution…”
― Language Change: Progress or Decay?
I was writing to a friend that you could see language change in progress with the appearance (maybe 15-20 years ago) of hone in on, replacing home in on in speech and even in print..