Better watch what you say


People think about the language in several ways. For some, words, sentences, and paragraphs just get in the way. They are impediments to communication, especially if you’re pressed for time and you’ve got to reply to a text message before the light changes.

The preferred alternative is to wrestle with the troublesome symbols, tame a few of them and employ for the most part only the ones everyone else uses. Repeat as needed. If desperation should set in, add emoticons.

For others, words are mere tools, subject to replacement, modification, casual change, even abuse. By our use of a word we can change its centuries-old meaning and make it do new work for us. We can make of any word what we like, use it according to our fancy, then discard it for another. So, for instance, something nowadays is “incredible” when it is actually astonishing, and unarguably authentic.

A “gay” evening out of the house, common years ago, could involve a political confrontation these days.

Or, “like” becomes a sort of an oral comma that has nothing to do with comparisons at all and everything to do with dramatic effect.

If they are to remain the authorities, the lexicographers will just have to catch up as they can.

Or, you can make new words, first by gathering sounds together, then trying to find letters that might represent the sounds you made, in order to symbolize the thought you set out to communicate.

For instance, “Yo, wussup?” (I added that question mark out of habit, although it’s rarely used in real life. What appears to be a question may be simply a greeting, as in “Howdy do.”) It may be that “Yo, wussup” is a statement rather than a question, and it may be that it should be spelled, “Yo, wuzzup.” It is certainly the case that those to whom this salutation is addressed rarely answer, “Oh, glad you asked, I’m just replacing the fuel filter on my outboard.”

No, a typical reply is more likely to be, “Yo, wussup (or wuzzup), bro.” Or, “hey”, not in the sense of attracting someone’s attention. “Hey” is often accompanied by an upward nod of the head, in which the chin is thrust out and the head back. It’s not really a nod, but the word “nod,” like so many others, has had to get used to being employed differently.

It is also the case that some of these newer expressions appear to derive their meanings at least in part from the nature of the speaker. One can make a dreadful mistake using this language if one is not a member of the licensed cohort. For instance, I made a ghastly error once when I replied to a request from one of the children for permission to go to the movies with some friends by saying, “Yo, I’m down wid dat.” Apparently, they understood this expression and regarded it as appropriate only when delivered by a young person wearing trousers with more than four pockets, and belted around the thighs. They told me not to say it again. But, they’ve also told me not to attempt French or dance in public.

Sometimes the tricks we play with the language can be enormously meaningful, if subconscious. For example, friends, supporters, staff, and critics spend a lot of time telling us that certain politicians need to “show their human sides” or “show more authenticity” or “show courage.” I wonder why these advisors never tell the candidate to empathize more with their constituents, to be courageous, or to be themselves. The show, to them, is apparently sufficient, even if a show of courage or empathy might possibly be inauthentic.

Likewise, in politics it’s important “to show humility” and “to show respect” rather than to be humble and respectful.

Drilling down a bit more, the distinction above calls into question the motives of the advisors, doesn’t it? Do they really want the recipient of their advice to be courageous or merely seem to be? (Are they conspiring with the pol in the fleecing of the voters?) They may worry that being courageous might harm the candidate’s chances, while “showing courage” is flaccid enough in its intention to allow the candidate to weasel free, if he finds himself needing to “show authenticity” to some hostile but desirable, alternate constituency.

Did his partisans doubt that the candidate is courageous, determined, strong, emotional, or human? No, of course not.

Did they believe that even if he possessed none of these qualities, he should nevertheless pretend to them? I don’t think so.

It was merely a tactical use of language, certainly in bounds in politics and increasingly in everyday life.

I think when your favorite, bubbly television reporter tells you that so-and-so showed great emotion as he announced his resignation, handcuffed on the courthouse steps, she may mean that the departing politician was emotional, overcome, maybe despairing, probably not remorseful. But, I could be wrong.

I think that when you hear that the mother who lost a son or daughter in the war “showed great strength,” the reporter means that the bereaved mother is a strong, though distraught woman, who shoulders her monumental sadness with remarkable aplomb. Here, I think she meant the latter, but clumsily, thoughtlessly, said the former, infiltrating ambiguity where there ought to have been none.

When the TV news commentator urges one party to “show bipartisanship” to the other, he must mean to suggest that the one ought to behave in a genuinely bipartisan manner toward its counterpart. But, again, if communication requires clarity, this formulation fails the test.

Of course, language is a moving target, and meanings shift. One finds oneself asking, is it important to show precision in the use of words or merely to be precise?