Word Watch- September 2009

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It’s morning in America. The birds begin to sing, the sun transcends the clouds; all over the continent, readers of Liberty rise from innocent and refreshing sleep to begin a new day of fun and profit.

A healthy breakfast, a fond goodbye to spouse and kids, a happy look at the stack of recent books from which the evening’s entertainment will be drawn, a successful search for briefcase and car keys, and then … you discover that you have just enough time to check out the stock reports. So you flick on the TV. The widescreen fills with artificial light; you see an attractive young woman sitting behind a desk. Her mouth opens, and she says, “Thus, at the end of the day, it begs the question, what’s the time- frame for this jumpstart of the economy? Thumbs up or thumbs down on the money markets?”

To which a ten-cent face in a thousand-dollar suit replies, “Well, Amber, you know it’s not over till the fat lady sings, but the president’s best and brightest sure have a tough act to follow when they try to fill those big shoes of the infamous Alan Greenspan.”

“Right, Mr. Dreckfuss. But now some sources are already saying that we literally haven’t yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel, yet.”

“You’ve hit the target on the nose, Amber. You know, it’s exactly like Mother Nature…. She’s always up to somethin’! S h – , I mean, things happen. You can’t live with her; you can’t live without her. Know what I mean?”

“Sure do! Well, hopefully we’ll get through it. Thanks for

joining us, Mr. D. Next up – a Santa with a heart of gold! And has anybody seen the body of Dolores Scrant? The neighbors are beginning to wonder! Just stay tuned; it’s all right here on CNN!”

Well, that’s enough of that, you decide. The screen goes off. Yet you know that things have changed. You know that you’re
no longer on a planet where life makes sense and words have meanings. You’ve entered another world, the world of nonsense, blather, yap, yap, yap; and unless Providence intervenes, you will wander that world throughout the day. Every broadcast, every email, every business memo, every sports report will surround you with dead and rotten expressions, expressions that somehow, because of some unanalyzable quirk of social physics and biology, have become the lifeforms of the planet you are forced to live on, at least ten hours of every dreary day.

Let’s call it Planet X, because no single name could do it justice. In this remote, desert world, creatures who bear a striking resemblance to modern humans endlessly recite fragments of human language, with no more understanding of what to do with them than you would expect from your average Cro- Magnon. Where do these phrases come from? One theory is that they originate from old broadcasts of “I Love Lucy,” which for the past six decades have been surging out from earth toward any lifeforms able to monitor them. God knows what they’ve done to the civilization of Phi Alpha Centauri.

Some researchers observe, however, that a few of the most popular expressions of Planet X are of much more recent origin. They theorize that some semihuman creature – a politician, perhaps, or an unemployed talk-show host – landed on X sometime around the year 2000, and transmitted his or her lingo to the unsuspecting population.

That would explain the prevalence, on Planet X, of usages that Earth would never have tolerated, back in the “I Love Lucy” era. Back then, people who heard someone say “beg the question” either knew that it was a technical term in logic (meaning, roughly, “reasoning in a circle”) or simply disregarded it, recognizing that they didn’t understand its meaning. Strange, but true: people in the past didn’t just give an expression whatever meaning they thought it should have. When they heard the word “infamous,” they didn’t immediately decide that it meant “very famous.” If they didn’t know what it meant, they left it alone, or they went to something called a dictionary and looked it up, so discovering that it means”lacking in good fame; despicable.” “A day which will live in infamy” was not a day that, you know, whatever, there must of been something famous that happened on it.

In those days, teachers were paid very little, and must therefore have been completely incompetent. Nevertheless, they taught their students to look up all the words they didn’t understand.
So when students heard the word “thus,” many of them looked it up. They discovered that it wasn’t just a word you stick onto a sentence to mean “I’m still talking here.” No, it actually had a meaning. It indicated a cause-effect relationship. If you wanted to use that word, you needed to do a second or two of thinking. You needed to decide whether the cause-effect relationship existed. I know, this sort of thing can be hard.

It’s much harder, though, to spend a day on Planet X, where unaccountable things are always happening, and no one even notices. This is a place where fat ladies are always about to sing (what, I wonder), though they never do. This is a place of weird religions, where people revere anything that happened “back

in the day,” without ever specifying when that great Day was. And this is a place for weird transformations of normal entities. Dead people always “look natural”; fanatics are always “activists”; busybodies are always “concerned citizens”; racial and intellectual exclusion is always”diversity.” On Planet X, people possessed of a greed for power (politicians, and agitators for racial or religious causes) are “community leaders” and “public servants,” said to be motivated by “high ideals”; while people who are more concerned with making money than taking it are scorned for thinking only of “the bottom line.” Strangely, their critics seem to be engaged in the same pursuit. They often say things like, “The bottom line is, we’ve got to have enough money to make our school system viable,” or, “The bottom line is, we need to fulfill the full potential of the American dream,” or, “The bottom line is, equality is still an audacious hope in this country.”

It is impossible to get through a day on Planet X without hearing such expressions. And they aren’t used – consciously, at any rate – as aimless patter, mere verbal wallpaper, like “sincerely yours” and “how are you today?” There is an actual intent to communicate. But to communicate what? Most of the phrases used on Planet X are difficult or impossible to translate. “In this country” has an air of mystery about it, as if the referent were some nation that could not be named, for fear of a political crackdown. Other expressions, such as “dream,” have a definite, though occult, meaning. This one may signify “a superannuated social program from which I expect to make some money.” Still others suggest a logic that is, to put it mildly, paradoxical. Consider “senior citizen,” which seems to mean that there are junior citizens, too – but it couldn’t, because that would violate the principle of “equality.” “Equality,” one of the most common expressions on Planet X, is even more paradoxical. Occasionally it means, “Everyone will get the same reward, no matter how anyone behaved,” but usually it means, “There must be conditions guaranteeing that our group will come out on top.”

“Viable,” though … That’s a puzzle. It’s clearly a favorable expression, but how it differs from “good,” “nice,” “wonderful,” “cool,” “sweet,” “incredible,” “awesome,” or “chill” has never been determined. Another thing that’s yet to be determined is the spatial relationships on Planet X. On this planet, one is supposed to be simultaneously “on the cutting edge” and “solidly in the mainstream.” Streams, on X, are solidly immobile. And that isn’t the only odd physical property of the place. People are always balancing things that couldn’t be balanced elsewhere. State budgets, for instance, are “balanced” whenever the unfunded liabilities are excluded, while leftist critics complain that these budgets are be- ing “balanced on [someone’s] back.” Anyone is free to fill in the “someone” – “educators,” “the mentally challenged,” “elders,” “the children” …

“The children” are the usual candidates. It seems that this planet’s “kids,” “youth,” “young people,” or “young adults” are preternaturally greedy and stupid. Virtually all government measures and popular enthusiasms are “for the children,” and attempts to educate these creatures consume most of local governments’ money.

Nevertheless, Planet X is a world that is clearly less devoted to people than to machinery. Nothing ever just grows or develops here; it has to be “pumped up” or “ratcheted up” by the government. This is especially true of the god of this world, who is called The Economy. This god “has issues”: he is lazy, jumpy, resentful, and spiteful, with a strong tendency to depression and panic attacks. Ordinarily, The Economy can be found “slumping” or “drooping” or “lagging” “in the doldrums.” Constant ratcheting by government agents is needed to “revive” him, “stimulate” him, and remove the “toxins” he gets from eating real estate loans.

His worshipers are similarly lazy, depressive, and mechanical, though given to peculiar binges in which they “kick back” and “party,” if they’re young, or “devour” a book, if they’re old and intellectual. Nothing ever comes of this. The books leave no spoors; the parties leave no trace on the emotions. When the creatures of Planet X make love, they” hook up” – or, if they happen to be very genteel, “get married” in ceremonies prescribed by the “bridal industry.” Quarrels ordinarily ensue, in which the happy couple goes “toe to toe,” either “picking nits” or bringing major issues “to a head.” Thus the language of biology complements the language of mechanics.

Sometimes the biological is a bit too biological. People who attempt to evade quarrels by behaving in an amicable way are of ten accused of being “suckups” or “brownnosers” by their morally fastidious friends. This language is accepted as normal in polite circles; grandmas and little children use it all the time. But anyone who goes on radio and starts to specify its literal meaning is looking for a whopping fine from the federal government. Worse, he’s looking at a torrent of anger from outraged moralists – the fate that greeted the hapless District of Columbia official who infuriated the city council by using the word “niggardly.” The only difference was that he used an innocent word in an innocent way, and the council was too dumb to realize it.

What will be the end of Planet X? Right now, most of its inhabitants are persuaded that it will die in the fires of “climate change.” A few years, months, or minutes ago, they were persuaded that it would be destroyed by war. After all, “War is not healthy for children or other living things.” Many people like to think that the planet will be destroyed by collision with an asteroid, which, though smaller than a shot glass, will “pack the punch of ten billion bombs the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.”

I think the planet will die when the last clear and comprehensible statement has made been made by the last literate human being. She will shout, “Look out! There’s smallpox in that via!!”, and the beings around her will reply, “Huh? Why can’t we smile?” Call it language change.

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