Efforts to control through language are rampant in the US. Everyone takes offense at everything, and the offended exact real-world reprisals. This category will contain articles around the theme that they’re just words, requiring no physical reprisals — and no safe spaces or other absurd accommodations.
One of the countless slogans by which we live.
“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.
Written language contains many information signals beside letters and numbers. Here are a few.
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.
A grammar book from the 1870’s shows language changing and sheds light on a contemporary language controversy.
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.
Gender-neutral “they”: Let it start here full post
(1435 words, 1 image, estimated 5:44 mins reading time)
Politically correctness attacks the teaching of English. Be afraid.
Be very afraid..
“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.”
Who dares to be the red person in a sea of blue think-alikes?
“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
“Offending and being offended are now the twin addictions of our society.”
— Martin Amis
Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings.
Being inoffensive and being offended are now the twin addictions of our society.
Corona beer? Coronavirus? What do they have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing. They’re homonyms – multiple meanings for the same sequence of sounds. The English language is full of them, but only a few cause trouble, by which I mean they become infected with a “political virus.”
I would not want to attend the panicky meetings going on inside the walls of the marketers of Corona® beer. The bugaboo of the current news cycle is the supposed connection between the worrisome coronavirus and the beer of the same name.
Gender politics pervades language, and it’s getting even harder to know what’s “correct.”
Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set up by him, and may be responsible for other illusions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?
Pronouns and gender politics full post
(1188 words, 1 image, estimated 4:45 mins reading time)
Politically incorrect speech is neither red nor blue. It is red, while and blue. It is American. Repression of speech leads to repression of thought.
This is a message that the p.c. crowd — in the media, in the universities – needs to hear again and again, because they don’t get it, especially when a Presidential candidate (Warren) announces “her” pronouns on the debate stage, and a teacher is fired for not using the student’s preferred pronouns. It is not enough, the argument goes, to have pronouns of two genders, when there are so many other genders. We need more pronouns!
Stop the pronoun craziness full post
(1290 words, 1 image, estimated 5:10 mins reading time)
Code-switching can be used in the service of pandering, as when Presidential candidates lapse into Spanish to win favor in the cheapest manner.
Spare me the sight / of this thankless breed, these politicians / who cringe for favors from a screaming mob / and do not care what harm they do their friends / providing they can please a crowd!
Euripides, Hecuba (c. 425 BCE)
This post introduces my Blahblahblah Award, bestowed upon the politician using the most devious and manipulative language since…well, since the previous award. The grinding Presidential race will continue for many months, so there should be plenty of material.
Code-switching and pandering – a new low full post
(671 words, 1 image, estimated 2:41 mins reading time)
Linguistics is concerned with who says what to whom, and why. Why do groups of people adopt their own manner of speaking? There are many answers.
Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.
I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.
On baby talk and language change full post
(1069 words, 1 image, estimated 4:17 mins reading time)
From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)
The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.
Paul Josef Goebbels
Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):
March 19, 2019
Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps. This is worse than obscene and ignorant. It is an utterly irresponsible use of language. As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.
Philip Roth produced a tremendous volume of work, on a machine like this. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” he writes of a man tortured by neck pain – possibly from all the typewriting.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
― American Pastoral
A prophet of political correctness
One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.
Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.
I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.
1. Hate speech and fighting words
The weaponization of language full post
(1167 words, 1 image, estimated 4:40 mins reading time)
Draft ABC press release — full-page ads in all print media; also release to all online news outlets (alternate universe):
New York, NY – June 1, 2018.
To all our advertisers, our staff, our viewers, and all the citizens of our great and FREE country….
We at ABC have experienced a firestorm of criticism for the on-line behavior of Roseanne Barr. To those who are apoplectic with politically-correct rage, we say: calm down.
We will not fire Roseanne or cancel her show over her behavior outside the workplace.
As offensive as her tweet was, it was just words. I repeat: just words.
Just when I thought the absurdity of political correctness/perceived insult exemplified by the contrived controversy over the “lighter is better” beer commercial could not be topped, along comes p.c.’s most ludicrous artifact yet: new pronouns.
A couple of days ago, I watched in shock and awe as Tucker Carlson interviewed a woman who explained them:
As a linguist, I am as liberal and objective as possible about language change. (Even I have my own annoyances: I will continue to say home in on and not hone in on till my dying day, just as I will cringe when somebody says “proverbial” about something that is merely familiar, but not in an actual proverb, as in “It’s just another case of the proverbial sour grapes.”)
I was wrong: p.c. can go even lower full post
(1185 words, estimated 4:44 mins reading time)
I have been bitching about political correctness for decades (e.g., “Why we love to hate p.c.,” Toastmaster magazine, June 1996; copies available on request) to no avail, and it keeps getting worse. The list of offensive words has grown and grown. New terms have appeared – “trigger words,” “hate speech,” “micro-aggressions” — as grievance groups continuously refine their exquisite sensitivities.
A recent example: you can’t refer to America as a “land of opportunity.” Because not everybody has (or had) the same opportunities?