Wanderlost in Languageland

The following post is by MYRLN, a non-blogger who is Kalilily’s guest writer every Monday.
Wanderlost in Languageland
Language is our major means of communication. But sometimes it doesn’t cleanly live up to that function. That’s not language’s fault, though. The fault lies with those who use it…or misuse it. Meaning us. In the hands (and minds and mouths) of its users, language often goes down strange roads — sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes through carelessness. Accident leads to some funny or incomprehensible or just plain dumb results. More sinister is the deliberate manipulation of language for what are ultimately dubious or selfish or manipulative ends. Carelessness often creates undesirable or questionable outcomes.
For example, the overuse of the word “hero” falls into the careless basket. Nowadays, many legal acts only slightly outside the ordinary activity of daily living are labeled “heroic.” A dog barks to scare an intruder, a child calls 911 to save a parent, a person joins the military. All “heroes.” No harm, you say? Well, what about when someone acts in a truly selfless, important way that has deeply meaningful results? Like the first-responders on 9/11, or the G.I. who dies throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies. They’re heroes, for sure, but overuse of the word has diminished its meaning. The barking dog and the G.I.: both “heroes?” Both acts of equal status? Unh-uh. By labeling both with the same word, we’ve robbed the term of its real heart. And thus the G.I.’s unselfish act of its important meaning.
Language’s accidental basket is much more fun, ‘though sometimes annoying — as when a t.v. talking head after a commercial break says “Welcome back” to us. Huh? We’ve not been anywhere, just sitting in front of the t.v. all along. “Welcome BACK?” Then there’s the truck driving the main road in front of your car. On its tailgate is a sign: “Construction Vehicle. Do Not Follow.” What do you do? Pull off the road ’til it’s gone? Turn and go the other way? And product instructions/descriptions, too, can be baffling. The shampoo bottle says, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” Something that open-ended has you washing your hair every second of the rest of your life. Or the juice bottle: “Shake well before using.” Like you’re a dog ridding its coat of water? Or the small/tall kitchen trashbags. What makes for a “tall” kitchen or defines a “small” one? Oh, and there’s the Department of Motor Vehicles conundrum: at a 4-way STOP sign intersection, four cars arrive simultaneously, one
at each sign. Which car proceeds first? The one on your right, says DMV. Okay, great, but…uh…each of the four cars has a car to its right. Now what? Uh-oh…language making for an hilariously incomprehensible situation. Permanent gridlock.
Of real concern, however, is the manipulation of language for questionable or sinister ends…especially by government. “Weapons of mass destruction,” for example, used to evoke fear and/or anger to get a particular action started. “Detainees” — guilty of anything or not. “No terrorist attacks since 9/11 proves administration policy is succeeding.” (Yeah, and spitting once daily in each direction is also responsible.) “Mission accomplished.” Richard Powers, in his 1991 book, THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, wrote, “Wars come down to the control of information,” (suggesting the “encoding” of language, using it in deceptive ways). That’s a truth we’ve learned the hard way in this Iraq conflict. The current administration has, at every turn, withheld, distorted, and contradicted information by deliberately misusing language. Powers’ point was about keeping an enemy from knowing what you’re really doing. Our problem is a government doing the same to its own people. Assisted, perhaps, by the fact that, as a recent study discovered, only 1 in 4 adults read a book in a year.
Maybe what we need is to deal with language the way a 5-year old child does: by continuously asking, “WHAT?” until clarity is achieved. Maybe then language will be returned to its major function: communication.

2 thoughts on “Wanderlost in Languageland

  1. I want to know when the perfectly useful word “horrible” became “horrific” and we never hear “horrible” any more.

  2. Probably the influence of movies and tv where “horrible” became too tame to excite the dulled-down senses of an overstimulated society. It’s like having a “war on terror” rather than a war on “terrorism,” and we all know whence that particular idiocy came

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