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Heather Mallick makes me proud to participate in this culture.

(I just wish I had time in class to work this material through in English class as well as it needed to be.)

Word Games - A word to the wise: handle language with care

Oct. 1, 2007

Words are like pharmaceuticals. Use them as directed on the label.

Pick a George W. Bush quote. "The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th."

And here's another: "It's very important for folks to understand that when there's more trade, there's more commerce."

Neither makes sense but that's not my point. It's the damnable "folks." In the first case, "folks" refers to Iraqi guerrillas (a more accurate label than "insurgents," which is a dry-as-dust word meaningless in the context of Iraq). And in the second case, they mean voters, regular people, the non-rich, the shmoes.

"Folks" was appropriate when Jed Clampett and Jethro Bodine used it on The Beverly Hillbillies, but isn't it odd how Bush, in charge of a war, refers to the enemy as "folks." It's even odder than his implication that he is a man of the people, given that he has spent his life proving otherwise.

We are all in this together, as Red Green likes to say, but we're not all folks. Some of Bush's so-called folks are dirt poor, some are moving up to desperate, then to worried, to smug, to rich as Croesus, this last meaning Bush's voter base. I can imagine a sheriff in Louisiana in the early 1960s talking about "black folks" and "white folks." One kind of folk gets lynched, the other doesn't.

I wouldn't have worried about this coy attempt to mislead, but I recently heard a Canadian MP use "folks" at a big fundraiser for the distinctly poor. I felt my dander get distinctly up. It means the word has spread, all politicians will begin using it, it will enter the Canadian idiom, and I have lost the battle even before it began. This is true of all fights about language, as the Académie Française has not learned over the years, but it still gnaws.

War spawns Newspeak

Here's another word chosen to mislead in one case, to lessen suffering in another: fallen, as in "fallen soldiers." When this word first appeared in recent headlines, I assumed a Canadian soldier fell, but tragically onto a landmine. But no, he was dead. Stephen Harper likes the word because it muffles the effect of the news that a good Canadian has died in a pointless war that Harper favours.

Journalists refer to the "fallen" the way funeral directors refer to the "loved one." But they are dead. "Fallen" soldiers don't "come home," as the headlines would have it. They are flown home in a casket. They will never brighten their families' lives again; their deaths in a distant land were horrible and lonely and it's wrong to sugar-coat that with cowardly language.

It also puzzles me when the U.S. forces in Iraq are called a "surge." It's a troop buildup. Once they're out of the White House briefing room, reporters can call it what it is. Why don't they? And armed Blackwater employees in Iraq are not "contractors." They are mercenaries. Contractors are the people I hire to fail to sand my flooring.

War spawns Newspeak because reporters are spoon-fed information. "Embedded" refers to a reporter under the control of the military, whether he welcomes that warm berth or not. He's an insect in amber, he's stuck, and it leads to a sort of Stockholm Syndrome that can't be good for readers.

Furthermore, "partisan" has become an American code word to refer to Democrats who speak up. It's a shame because the partisans of the Second World War were the glorious Resistance. Now they're beaten-down liberals?

My local paper, the shy and sweet-natured Toronto Star, has begun referring to murders in "east-end" Toronto, where I live. I'm puzzled because my sleepy, slightly shabby neighbourhood, the Beaches, is not like Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It sets records for dull. Wow, two guys got shot in the Beaches lord almighty let's sell up and move to Flannery, Sask. But when the paper mentions the intersection where the two men were shot to death, it's inevitably in Scarborough. It seems the Star has a policy of not calling Scarborough "Scarborough," probably because Scarborough politicians complained that it makes the neighbourhood look bad.

Which it does, because Scarborough is a bad neighbourhood. I no longer read about east-end murders because I am sick of being startled by news of bloodshed that didn't happen two streets over. Twisting words for corporate purposes is a good way to wear readers out.

Woe to celebs who get Oscar noms

My other objection is to diminutives. And here is where I leave my love of precision behind and move into the realm of the curmudgeon. I can almost feel my neck reddening and thickening and my hairy arm reaching for a Moosehead. But hear me out.

David Sedaris once wrote about his dating standards, saying he would not go out with anyone who didn't say words in full. No "59th and Lex" and definitely no "Mad Ave." The essence of Sedaris's genius is that we agree, while also agreeing with his assessment of himself as a pest and a pain for having such rules.

An Oscar nomination is not a "nom." It's not a "nod" either, but at least that's a word. A phenomenon is not a "phenom," either, and celebrities are not "celebs." I understand that words are chosen to fit in a short headline, which explains why newspapers are the only places where you see "laud" and "woes" any more. But what did people say before "celebrity"? Famous people and newspapers have co-existed since the 16th century.

Pedestrian matters do not become suddenly! exciting! by having the word "solutions" placed after them. What are bed and bath solutions? Sheets and towels, am I right?

"Fashionistas" is a tragic word for tragic people. For just as hairdressers always have terrible hair, people in the fashion industry make a point of looking dreadful. They want to be noticed rather than admired. As for people who say "hubby" and "gal" out loud, I have no words for them.

Here endeth the lesson.

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would you be hoping to work the language or the politics into your class? would one be disguised as the other?

Short answer? Just the possibility of open discussion about it all. It's not my job to dictate content, and the students know from the beginning that what we get together to work on is form - what is possible within given structures (chiefly, those set out for Standard Received English by the people at Oxford).

Longer answer? Where content becomes an issue, yes, maybe my politics do enter into it, if by "politics" I read my own as the determination to avoid intentional and unintentional confusion. But that, really, has more to do with epistemology than politics. Whatever someone's political orientation, my job is to make sure that they set it out (if that's their intention) clearly and plainly, to open it up for discussion and debate (this is, of course, a political bias that I will cop to; other political biases wouldn't accept that).

If, e.g., I insist that "media" be used in the plural, that is to make both an important linguistic distinction (the word comes to us as a Latin plural of "medium"), and an epistemological one, which forces people to specify precisely which medium or media they have in mind - ideally, right down to specifics (a certain TV commentator, or ad company, or journalist working at a certain paper). But what, politically, someone is to do with that is none of my concern.

Sorry, but I'm still in teaching mode for the day, and you asked ;) .

I don't know - is it of any political significance if you wring out of the abstraction, say, "collateral damage" the truth of a father holding a baby whose head has just been blown off?

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George Elliott Clarke


Snow annilates all beauty

this merciless January.

A white blitzkrieg, Klan-cruel,

arsons and obliterates.

Piercing the lies numbs us to pain.

Nerves and words fail so we

can't feel agony or passion,

so we can't flinch or cry,

when we spy blurred children's

charred bodies protruding

from the smoking rubble

of statistics or see a man

stumbling in a blizzard

of bullets.Everything is

normal,absurdly normal.

We see, as if through a snow-


rat-a-tat-tat tactics,

stratagems.Missiles bristle

behind newspaper lines.

Our minds chill;we weather

the storm,huddle in dreams.

Exposed,though,a woman,

lashed by lightning repents

of her flesh,becomes a living

Xray,"collateral damage."

The first casualty of war

is language.

Seemed very appropriate.

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i found the original article a bit puzzling... she doesn't want language to be used a certain way, but they way she chooses to use it is ok? what's wrong with the 'fallen' soldier metaphor? metaphor exists everywhere and there's nothing wrong in my book with being a bit polite about it, even just for the family's sake. who doesn't know what 'fallen' means in this context?

and to say someone who has 'fallen' will never brighten the family's lives again, well, that's cold-hearted and i guess she's never had to deal with death before.

contractors - they're not just the people who do your roof. it's anyone who works on a contract, like it or not.

the east-side discussion - she needs a map. she can't argue for literal meanings of word in the top of the article and then object to it later on.

i dunno. i'm not sure what this article is supposed to say. i don't think it's all that good.

and i'd like to add that i'm not fully awake so these arguments might not be all that fleshed out. but there you have it.

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"Fallen" isn't a metaphor..it's a euphemism.That's the point.It's a deliberate use of more palatable language to disguise something less lovely, the language of politics always obscuring the truth.

I don't think it's cold hearted to the families...in my own experiences of death ,the fuzzy blanket language sticks to your wounds more..you just want something aptly descriptive of your pain.It's a social convention, true..the fault of it not needing to be laid at politics feet.

East is literally a question of reference point.Anything can be east.The dispute is with the word dripping in the connotations of "East end,place of disrepute"..when literally it could mean almost anywhere.

The article loses some punch by switching from weightier word issues to the more trivial ones at the bottom...although I still agree there too.

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AD, just to go back a couple of posts - I deal with post-secondary students, so they can typically hold their own pretty well (or, at least, should).

What got me going at the start of this, and why Orwell came to mind, is that Mallick seems to be pretty much in phase with Orwell in her criticism of these wooden, lifeless expressions of language. I think this bit from his essay, "Politics and the English Language," nails it.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

( source )

The church-language analogy I think is apt. I remember being in that generation that had to go through the Lord's Prayer as part of opening exercises every morning; I don't think it's unfair to say that it would take particular attention to the content of each of those six phrases to give them any meaning or value for the people saying or hearing them.

Whether the language has a serious referent - as "fallen" does - or is more trivial, I think the important part in the end is how many neurons are firing as a result of those words.

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you say "Fallen" is more palatable - you don't accept the word; isn't it less palatable to you? it all depends on the reader, right?

her 'east-end paragraph' is stupid. and not everywhere can be east of a relative point. kitchener cannot be "east-end toronto." i don't know where you were going with that. the fact that she interpreted the location as one place and it was in fact somewhere else is not the language's fault - it's the writer's for not saying more specifically what happened. which is stupid and not really worthy of a op-ed piece, or whatever this is.

this whole article is too cutesy for me. doesn't really make a point.

Signed, confused in south-end Ottawa.

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her east-end paragraph is stupid. and not everywhere can be east of a relative point. kitchener cannot be "east-end toronto." i don't know where you were going with that. the fact that she interpreted the location as one place and it was in fact somewhere else is not the language's fault - it's the writer's for not saying more specifically what happened.

There's also an ambiguity in the city itself, as Scarborough used to exist as a separate entity (originally a borough, later a city, within Metropolitan Toronto), but since amalgamation, it doesn't anymore. When it did exist, "East-end Toronto" was taken to mean places like the Beaches, which were in the East part of Toronto proper, rather than Metropolitan Toronto; back then, Scarborough was referred to as Scarborough.

But now that Scarborough no longer exists, it can be claimed that "East-end Toronto" should be just that: areas that are in the East end of Toronto, which would include the former entity known as Scarborough.

It seems the Star has a policy of not calling Scarborough "Scarborough," probably because Scarborough politicians complained that it makes the neighbourhood look bad.

No, they don't call that part of Toronto "Scarborough" because Scarborough no longer officially exists. And the "probably because Scarborough politicians" bit is bitter speculation; that the writer has to speculate to create support for her argument is just bad journalism.



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Of course what's palatable is dependent on the reader...and I would probably rather hear "fallen" over breakfast then "blasted into millions of oozing fragments of meat."

The issue is whether that as a society it is good for us to be anesthetized to reality by language.Just because you can swallow it doesn't mean you should.Perhaps if the language (following Orwell would be a great)intentionally married itself with veracity to it's subject matter instead of clouding it,we as a society would be more cogniscant of the unpalatable truths behind the words.And maybe,just maybe,that might make a difference.

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this whole article is too cutesy for me.

Fair enough; that's kind of her schtick, in print and in person. That kind of style can trump the substance, and as bradm points out, when she gaffes with imprecision in her own language, she doesn't do her point much service.

doesn't really make a point.

I still think that point, which I was overlooking the cuteness for, is still there - we have to resist the magnetic pull to use language unconsciously.

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These are basically your stupid, politically correct nonsense words. The real, everyday word or phrase is on the left. The replacement word or phrase is on the right. God help you if you are someone who speaks like this!

blow job = holistic massage therapy

cheap hotel = limited service lodging

loan-sharking = interim financing

kidnapping = custodial interference

mattress and box spring = sleep system

shack job = live-in companion

truck stop = travel plaza

used videocassette = previously viewed cassette

wife beating = intermittant explosive disorder

theater = performing arts center

manicurist = nail technician

nude beach = clothing optional beach

peephole = observation port

baldness = acquired uncombable hair

body bags = remains pouches

drought = defecit water situation

recession = a meaningful downturn in aggregate output

in love = emotionally involved

room clerk = guest service agent

uniforms = career apparel

seat belt/air bag = impact management system

prostitute = commercial sex worker

dildo = marital aid

nonbelievers = the unchurched

lying on a job application = resume enhancement

miscarriage = pregnancy loss

police clubs = batons

smuggling = commodity relocation

porn star = adult entertainer

room service = private dining

nightclub = party space

monkey bars = pipe-frame exercise unit

cardboard box = makeshift home

fingerprinting = digital imaging

fat lady = big woman

junkies = the user population

apartment = dwelling unit

committee = task force

maid = room attendant

salesman = product specialist

bad loans = nonperforming assets

seasickness = motion discomfort

gangs = nontraditional organized crime

civilian deaths = collateral damage

gambling joint = gaming resort

mole = beauty mark

garbage collection = environmental services

breast = white meat

thigh = dark meat

sludge = bio-solids

genocide = ethnic cleansing

jeep = sports utility vehicle

library = learning resources center

junk mail = direct marketing

soda jerk = fountain attendant

soldiers and weapons = military assets

third floor = level three

illegal immigrant = guest worker

jet ski = personal watercraft

loafers = slip-ons

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