Word Watch: January 2010

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As you’ve noticed, this column has some of the attributes of a column of troops: it’s loud and destructive, its course is generally unpredictable, and sometimes it’s hard to see to the end of it. The column’s one purpose is to find the enemy army and get off a few shots.

But often the enemy is just too scattered and numerous to be attacked in one body. It’s dangerous, yes, but it appears to be all over the landscape. Its formations have to be taken out one by one – a difficult if not impossible task. And that’s the situation today. The foes of rational speech and writing lurk behind every tree, and they have to be attacked sequentially.

So let’s do it. Start with the enemy’s grenade throwers.

These are the people who try to soften up our forces by hurling deadly cliches at us. They claim that everyone who disagrees with them is an “extremist,” a “Kool-Aid drinker,” an “angry white male,” and so on, and they claim that they themselves are “outraged,” “dismayed,” and simply thrown for a loop by these weird exponents of civil irrationality.

Recently, enough grenades were launched at Congressman Joe Wilson to empty a whole arsenal of cliched insults and viewings-with-alarm. But, to be accurate, most of these missiles were aimed exclusively, and crudely, at a person and a party, not at the English language. Attacks on the language are generally conducted in a less obvious but more effective way.

Think about President Obama’s choice as the Nobel Laureate for Peace. He might as well have received the prize for Chemistry. Let’s see … what did “peace” mean, according to Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes? According to his will, the prize for Peace was to go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The president’s accomplishments fit this definition as well as his hate-crimes bill fitted the military spending bill to which it was appended. In the world of the smug and powerful, any words fit any context, but always to the detriment of rational language.

The Nobel awards in non-science fields have been disgracing the language (every language, English, Swedish, Norwegian, whatever) for many years. Look up, for instance, Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Laureate, Peace (1992). Or review the list of Nobel Peaceniks and ask yourself how many of the prizes had anything to do with Nobel’s intentions. Both the literature and the peace awards are dispensed as frequently for social activism or ethnic representation as for anything remotely to do with fraternity among nations, the reduction of standing armies, or the promotion of peace conferences. IfAl Gore’s science meant anything, he would have received a Nobel Prize for science. But it doesn’t, so he got one for Peace, thus debasing the very name of peace.

But let’s turn to a humbler theater of words. Consider the word “grow.” This is the weapon of choice for a force of young zouaves, untrained and naive, but very flashy. Their goal is to create a buzz, to energize old words, or, in a phrase, to confuse the dead with the living. We all know that corn, being alive, will grow. So will kids, if they stay away from government schools. But that’s not enough for the young volunteers. They want to find the spirit of life and growth in things that are not alive and cannot be grown. They want to “grow a business,” “grow the economy,” even “grow the future of our country.”

Our president frequently marches with these recruits. And some of them could teach him a few maneuvers. Yesterday I heard one of them talking on the government radio network. This young man referred to the importance of “growing the size of the economy.” He reminded me of the grizzled journalists who keep saying things like” larger in size” and “fewer in number” (as opposed, I guess, to larger in time and fewer in space). But he outdid them in spunk. Picture a “size,” planted in a field. Now “grow” it. That’s what he said: “growing the size.”

“Grizzled,” however, recalls another kind of enemy: those soldiers of the word wars who devoutly believe that any two words that sound alike must also be alike – in fact, identical. These are incompetent warriors, soldiers whose enemies (and friends, if they have any) can only laugh at them. Still, they’re dangerous, because blunderers with words are always dangerous to the language, if there are enough of them; and these guys have been multiplying ever since the authorship of internet news was placed in the hands of teenagers. (Wait: you’ll find out what “grizzled” has to do with this.)

You don’t believe me? Look here – it’s a Reuters story, dated September 7, and it has the folksy title, “Milky Way Expected to Survive a Beating.” This time, picture Rocky Balboa, prepared to give someone a beating. Now picture our galaxy. Close enough, eh? The story, if it deserves to be called that, was about … all right, here’s the nub:

“Circling around the Milky Way are between 20 and 25 known satellite dwarf galaxies, which are smaller clumps of stars bound in orbit around the Milky Way by gravitational attraction. Some pessimists predicted the Milky Way was doomed to a grizzly death by dismemberment if enough of these galaxies collide with it. In fact, scientists think many satellite galaxies have already rammed into the Milky Way, though so far it has endured.” You noticed “grizzly.” If it isn’t teenagers who are writing this … abandon all hope. “Dwarf galaxies,” we find, and it is much to our edification, are “smaller” than the galaxy around which they revolve. Also newsworthy is the fact that these dwarves, or dwarfs, not only “circle” but also “orbit,” doing so by means of “gravitational attraction.” But thank God, there’s good news: “so far” our galaxy “has endured” all this. We wouldn’t know that if it weren’t for Reuters, as well as the “scientists,” as opposed to “pessimists,” whose stuff the Reutersritter have been reading. (Some people get degrees in physics; others get degrees in pessimism.)

But why was I bringing this up? Oh, I remember. It’s because our authorities on the fate of the universe don’t even know the difference between a grisly death and a death by grizzlies. I confess that I like the image of an enraged sow grizzly chomping up the galaxy. It’s almost as good as Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, when the Midgard Serpent poisons the sky. But this pleasant effect is obviously unintended.

The teenage news writers, however, are only foot soldiers compared to such generals as Sean Hannity, who specializes in spreading dismay among his natural allies. On his August 18 TV show, Hannity had to be told by the pollster, Frank Luntz, that there’s a serious difference in meaning between a real “public option” in insurance and a “government option.” Luntz pointed out that President Obama’s scheme is actually the latter. He added that when people are polled on the issue, most support a “public” option, but even more oppose a “government” one. You’d expect that Hannity would already have grasped the distinction between those two expressions, since it was in his ideological interest to do so, but no, he hadn’t.

The leftwing equivalent is Paul Begala, once the Clintons’ leading skirmisher, now one of the numerous ghosts haunting the TV interview shows. This summer, he characterized Sarah Palin as “not a serious person.” Well, he should talk. But he went on to say that she was “half a whack job.” Only half? But seriously, folks, a whack job is a gangland killing, as in “The Sopranos.” A wacko, wacky person, or wack job is different. Teenagers, and aging White House spokesmen, now routinely confuse “whack” with “wack.” And if they can’t get that right … what else are they good for?

Recently the president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, praised his boss’ enthusiasm for political schmoozing and glad handing by saying, “I think the president would orbit the moon if he thought it would help.” The idea of Obama, sealed in one of NASA’s tin cans, endlessly circling a dead planet, is perhaps appropriate to his political performance, but it is hardly appropriate to the image that Gibbs wanted to project.

In this context, I should mention the recent and continuing funeral games for Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy. According to USA Today, Kennedy’s son, Junior, talked about his father’s enjoyment of the fulsome tributes he received when other politicians realized he was dying. “He was really able to soak it in,” the son said, implying some enormous satisfaction. Imagine Kennedy in a bathtub, soaking up praise. What a hero! And apparently this genius ofAmerican politics never noticed that political compliments are, on occasion, hypocritical. The proverb is right: you can’t cheat an honest man.

Kennedy was a marshal in the army of word abusers; nothing he ever said had any particular meaning, except that he was saying it, and he was a Kennedy. So it’s not surprising that his subalterns should refuse any attention to the meanings of words. Yet meaning-repellent, though a standard part of military equipment, lasts only so long. Eventually it runs out. The great Napoleon said a lot of things that didn’t make any sense, but people still applauded, as if they had. His nephew, Napoleon III, also said things like that, and some people acquiesced in them. Then he too was gone – and where is the Grande Armee now? When the queen dies, the hive disperses. You see the application.

The continuing danger comes from the soldiers who owe allegiance neither to man nor God but to their militant “professions.” They are social workers, bureaucrats, “educators,” members of the “helping professions.” They are at work, day and night, debasing the English language. That is what they were trained to do; that is what they do.

Even the medical corps gets into the act. As soon as they hear something they dislike on professional grounds, they mount a sneak attack on it. A typical episode took place in October. Some new empirical studies reported what empirical studies have been reporting for a long time, that drinking wine can have beneficial effects on health. St. Paul said that in plain words in the 1st century; now science says the same, in words equally plain. But neither science nor the Bible is good enough for the paid guardians ofthe nation’s health, or their helpful allies in the media.

Instead of trumpeting the scientific findings, the media trumpeted the unscientific evasions. They were quick to report that “experts with the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association say that though these studies do show some benefits to moderate drinking, the health risks from alcohol consumption far outweigh the potential rewards.”

Notice that the sentence is set up so that the downside (risk) is real, while the upside (reward) is only “potential.” So what are these risks? Well, said a Cancer Society officer, by drinking you might get “cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon/rectum and breast.” Um, let’s see. In plain English, what does this mean? It means that if you think you can lower your “bad” cholesterol by taking a glass or so of wine, you are wrong – utterly and grotesquely wrong. That glass is more likely to give you every cancer you can think of, and plenty more.

You doubt that this is what it means? Consider the preface to the words just quoted: “Drinking any alcohol at all is known to increase your risk for contracting a number of types of cancer.” Indeed! Is that known? Is it known that every drop of alcohol increases the risk of cancer? Is a nice young Baptist who got drunk at his high-school prom at more risk of cancer than a nice young Baptist who didn’t? Shall I cut back on my daily thimbleful of pinot noir, because every single drink increases my danger of getting cancer of the pharynx? This is like saying that because someone may have an accident while walking to the store to replenish his supply of soy milk, no one should ever leave the house, much less crave health food.

But speaking of accidents, think of all the things that could happen to you if you actually went so far as to drink alcoholic beverages. That’s what a medical spokeswoman for the American Heart Association hastened to say. The “health risks from moderate drinking,” she announced, include “liver damage and accidents caused by impaired reflexes.” Excuse me … is this is a doctor talking? Who gets liver damage from moderate drinking? Who runs into trees (” impaired reflexes”) because he had a single drink of wine? But this is supposed to be why you should never take that fatal drink.

I’m sorry: that reminds me. I need to retire to the rear. I understand there’s a thimbleful of wine somewhere …

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