Some words today about words …
“Word work,” the late American author Toni Morrison called it, the craft she practiced to international acclaim. A “towering novelist of the Black experience,” the New York Times called her at her death in 2019.
The author of “The Bluest Eye,” “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, and in her lecture at the Nobel ceremony she delivered what was described as “a lovingly crafted tribute to language and to the sublime vocation” of telling truths through story, through words.
I have long kept close part of the Times’ account of that lecture, as inspiration and admonition. “She spoke of the value of language: not official language or the censoring language of the state or the trick language of journalism (my emphasis), but language as words, with the magic they contain when they are learned by children.
“It is words, she suggested, that empower meditation, that fend off ‘the scariness of things with no names,’ and that ease the burden of oppression. And, in the end, it is words that enable us to make some sense of our existence by allowing us to stand aside to narrate it.”
The “trick language of journalism.” Guilty, I have to say. Often guilty. We journalists are, an old newspaper guy told me nearly 40 years ago, often “flamboyant and pedestrian at the same time,” writing with “a swaggering banality.” I keep his words close, too, as a caution.
I’ve been brooding lately about words, how we use them, why we choose the words we use (and to be honest, where so many words I once knew and had within easy reach have gone).
Our language is a living thing, and I accept that some words will fall out of use as new words come along. I object, however, to the wanton coinage of some new words: “garvest,” for example, for the bounty you harvest from your garden, or “campanion,” for one who goes camping with you. We can do without those.
Similarly, we are plagued by the inflated language of the stuffy and self-important, such as the school officials in California who some time ago determined that a school bus should be renamed a “motorized attendance module,” driven not by a driver but by an “education facilitator.” Some of the contorted language of higher education makes my head hurt.
More serious, though, is the increased use, especially on the internet, of words of hate, sneering contempt and division.
“Cancel culture,” for starters.
The term is tossed around to decry or dismiss efforts to broaden or deepen our understanding of our past, efforts to come to terms with, say, Washington and Jefferson as slaveholders. Rewriting history? Canceling the memory of inspired, heroic founding fathers? No. The goal is context and understanding who we are and how we came to be.
“Virtue signaling” is another phrase that rankles. You hear it from people who remain unconvinced that COVID-19 is real, who insist that the vaccines are neither safe nor effective, who scoff at the notion that masks help to lessen the spread. To wear a mask or declare that you are fully vaccinated is to boast how virtuous you are.
No. It is more a plea than a boast. Its purpose is not to shame, though many who do believe the science are losing patience with those who adhere to conspiracy theory. Similarly, glibly calling conservative people “fascists” is usually unfair and counter-productive.
We have long struggled with language in public discourse because people enlist perfectly good words, dress them in evocative adjectives and send them off to battle. North Dakota is a “right to work” state, and who could argue against such a noble sentiment, except maybe workers who hear it as “right to work for lower wages, fewer benefits, less security and impediments to organizing.”
Are you pro-abortion or pro-choice? Are you “right to life” or anti-women’s rights?
Fake news. RINOs – Republicans in name only. Demoncrats. Libtards.
If you try to be respectful in your use of words, conscious of the risk of damaging racial or gender stereotypes in words, you are being “politically correct.” At my old newspaper, editors determined years ago that we should use the terms “police officer" and “firefighter” rather than “policeman” or “fireman.” Politically correct? OK. But is that really a bad thing?
Do you understand why the phrase “Black lives matter” gained such currency in response to police abuses or do you respond defensively, defiantly, with “All lives matter”? Of course, all lives matter. That’s the point of protesting that Black lives haven’t seemed to matter in too many situations.
We are embracing and repeating “truths” from our own increasingly disparate information silos, engaging in too much snark and condescension, too much manipulation and debasement of words for negative effect. We talk, but we don’t listen. Compromise is now a dirty word. Discredited, hurtful words like “retard” are making a comeback.
And “snowflake,” such a lovely, magical word, especially when first learned by children, is now a term of dismissal and contempt.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.