Help Stop Language Abuse

Help Stop Language Abuse

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"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that’s all." 

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Very early in my life, it was clear that I was going to be good with words (and not so good at other things, like sports). Somewhere along the line my dad sat me down to talk about the importance of language: Words were precious bearers of truth, he said, which must be used responsibly, not just for effect. The message stuck with me. So I've long hated the postmodern idea that words don't really mean anything — that they're just tools of power to make people think whatever you want them to think.

Language abuse is all around us. Take lovers. The word should be reserved for people whose relationship is marked by real love — the lasting commitment of marriage. Often, though, lovers is used to refer to unmarried people having sex. (Unmarried to each other, that is; frequently married to someone else.) This always struck me as a perversion of the word. These relationships are marked not by love, but by the absence of love, properly understood. The last thing we should do is romanticize them.

In a similar vein, take adult — as in adult movies or adult entertainment. Talk about euphemisms! Once again, a word that should connote the best qualities (maturity, responsibility) is being hijacked to describe something more nearly the opposite. I'd say more on this subject, but Calvin & Hobbes already did it better than I could.

I could keep rattling off examples all day. (The world of politics alone could furnish me a couple hours' worth.)

Because language abuse is so widespread, many people either stop noticing it or just shrug it off the way we shrug off much of the advertising which surrounds us. Big mistake. Language abuse is thought abuse: It deadens our minds, eroding our ability and inclination to think clearly and seek the truth. Far from letting ourselves get blasé about it, we should keep an eye out for it and fight it whenever we spot it.

Stopping language abuse starts by identifying the problem. Let's hear some examples that you've noticed.

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  • Tolerance. It used to mean "putting up with something annoying or uncomfortable", a meaning similar to patience or long-suffering. Now it's used to mean "accepting and agreeing with others' opinions/choices/lifestyles" and you're "intolerant" (these days something of a mortal sin) if you reject someone's opinions/choices/lifestyle.

    If we truly were the cute little gods we make ourselves out to be, we'd be secure in our beliefs and not think ill of someone for disagreeing--after all, if each man makes his own truth, each one will come up with something different, often mutually incompatible, right?--but no, we still have to garner the approval of everyone else so we hate and verbally abuse those who won't give it to us by "tolerating" us.

  • As I have mentioned in other posts, I get really bothered by 'Christianese' words and phrases. "Discernment", "engage the culture", "stand in the gap", and things like "disappointing", "problematic", and "unfortunate" when used in the context of a movie, music, or game review to describe what that reviewer happens to find objectionable. People who are unchurched have no idea what (if anything) this sort of jargon means.  

  • When I was 17 I heard a talk show host, with the unforgettable name of Kermit, refer to flies "making love." Ugh! Interesting that when Frank Sinatra spoke of same, "That we'd be making love, before the night was through..." He was speaking of kissing and fondling, not of sex. In Colombia, because people have such a natural attitude towards sex -- which I happen to dislike because it's literally that, natural, and not hemmed in by moral or religious beliefs -- "making love" is just about the only sexual euphemism you'll hear. But also they don't use vulgarisms, which is nice. A penis and a vagina are just that. In the US, it's pretty much normal to refer to a penis by any one of a million other names. ANYTHING but penis!

    When I was still a writer, I got to a point where I stopped using the term "Orwellian" as in language, because it's because SO common. Especially in group names, which pretty much always either are meaningless or such that nobody could disagree with them. Stuff like "Americans for Freedom." Who is against freedom? Quick! Is the National Organization for Marriage in favor of homosexual marriage or not? (Not.) Log Cabin Republicans are in favor of building more log cabins or are pro-gay? And on and on.

    I don't like this trend, but it's in full swing.

  • ok.... i get that there is language abuse, but some of your examples don't line up. like 'make love.' that's not word abuse, that's a sort of moral or cultural thermometer, in some sense. to me the use of the word as a synonym for sex shows the slide of our values.

    but as for word abuse, isn't it generally just a version of evolution? i mean, how far back do we go? so many of our words have evolved from other languages (e.g. latin), and their roots mean very different things. words can change over time. take "gay" for example. is that word abuse, or the simple evolution, or development, of a word?

  • I don't think I really agree with this.  I guess I'm one of those "postmodern" language people, but I've always seen language as being fluid and evolving, and a lot of it related to culture and stuff like that.  Like, as Mdick pointed out, the word Gay.  It used to mean "Happy" but now it means "homosexual".  I wouldn't really think of that as "language abuse" it just changed.  I have a friend who once told me he hates it when people use the word "awesome" because of how its supposed to refer to religious and reverential awe in God.  But I just thought he was kind of complaining about nothing.  meanings change over time  My feeling is that as long as we can all understand what we're talking about when we say stuff, there really isn't a problem.  

  • It is important to consider the current connotations of the words we use. However, all living languages inevitably change over time, so we have to adapt to a certain degree if we want to communicate. The "euphemism treadmill" shows how quickly the connotations of words change. We shouldn't use language that has a different connotation than we really believe, but language will change over time whether we want it to or not.

    Language is connected to freedom. As Americans, we have the freedom (within legal limits) to express our beliefs, opinions, and thoughts even when they conflict with other people's. "Abuse" is a strong word, and I would hesitate to call any language abusive unless it is degrading someone. As Christians, we would not be happy if every time we said "God's Word," atheists replied, "No, you should say "The Judeao-Christian book of fairy tales instead," and then we could have a long, fruitless, heated discussion over who was using language abusively and deceptively.  

    That's not to say I don't believe in absolute truth. I certainly do, but I respect other people's freedom of speech as long as it is not degrading someone, and it is too exhausting and pointless to try to control what everyone around me says. Words come from the heart, so people are not going to change their language unless we can convince the other person to change their mind on the topic. This usually doesn't happen in one conversation, and certainly not in a heated argument. It IS good to question people on why they use certain words and the implications of those words, but we have to "choose our battles."

    Sometimes everyone gets so hung-up on the terminology that we don't actually listen to what the other person is saying. There are also times when we may need to adjust our terminology (without watering our point down) so that other people will be more likely to listen and understand what we are saying.                  

  • To Alyson: I wrote about "language abuse," not "abusive language," to stress that language itself was the victim, not the victimizer. This is mainly about abuse of the language, not use of language to abuse people. Though of course, there are cases when the former also can entail the latter — e.g., when those who take certain moral stands are accused of "hate" or "homophobia." (Why should principled opposition — or even visceral revulsion — be called a "phobia?")

    To several commenters: I'd argue that in language, as in culture, much of what is called "evolving" is actually devolving. It's true that some changes are harmless. But others are harmful: Their effect — and, sometimes, their intent — is to mislead. It's no accident that this tends to happen with words that carry moral connotations, either positive or negative. People want to make themselves (or something that they support) look good, or to make people or causes they oppose look bad. So they take words captive to their purposes, distorting the words' meaning in the process.

    That's the kind of thing I mean by language abuse. I hope that's clarifying!

  • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh.

    I'm more on the "evolution of words" side of things myself. In all honesty, Many of the terms mentioned above have "evolved" as a way to shield people (particularly children) from concepts they might not yet be ready for. For example, a five o'clock newscast (broadcasted often in public forums like doctor's offices and waiting rooms...) reporting on a double homicide that was the result of someone walking in on their spouse and their spouse's sexual-partner-who-was-not-their spouse, gets a layer of "I don't have to explain "Sexual partner" to my 8 year old who happened to be at the jiffy lube with me when I was getting my oil changed" when they simply say "lover" instead. The adults understand, but the kids are less likely to ask uncomfortable questions. I'm ok with that. The same thing with "Adult Bookstore" (Which often advertise on LARGE bilboards here in the south" verses "Porn Bookstores" or "Sex Shop". Kids make innocent assumptions about the former, instead of asking questions about words they don't know.

    I'm more annoyed by the language abuse that MDick talks about. For example, I love pizza and I love my husband. Those are two separate ideas, but we don't have different words for them which can lead to a lot of confusion for young adults and teens encountering the idea of romantic love for the first time. It's also really irritating when one political interest or another appropriates "Family Values" or "Freedom" or "Women's Reproductive Health" to their party agenda like they are the only people who care about such things. "Family Values" often used in a political sense means NOTHING about family values, and everything about who shouldn't be allowed to enter into a legally binding romantic relationship with whom, while family values in honest sincerety should be about caring for children, providing a supportive and educational home live, and instilling good moral critical thinking skills into children in a home where parents love each other and put their own self interests last. (Of course, those same people will also they that of course they care about those things... while shuffling money out of education and marital support programs and into their own special interests). Of course there are offenders on both sides of the aisle, but It irritates me when I see conservatives equate social justice with communism and when I see liberals associate being Pro-life with being anti-woman.

    Why can't people just say what they mean?

  • Re: "Family values," I can't imagine anything more relevant to family than gender. The union of man and woman, the presence of both dad and mom, are the foundation of the family. Each has essential and distinctively gender-specific contributions to make, to teach their children what it is to be a man and a woman, and to teach how men and women interact together. There's no way a second "mom" can replace dad, or a second "dad" can replace mom.

    That said, I'm not wild about the term "family values" either, mainly because it's too vague. It's one of those terms politicians use, often insincerely, to communicate different things to different people, the better to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Social conservatives are meant to take it as a declaration of solidarity with their principles; others, however, are meant to get a general warm-fuzzy "families are nice" vibe — like any Hallmark card might deliver — without thinking too much about the more controversial issues that the social conservatives are thinking about. I've never liked papering over real and important differences in the interests of creating a false sense of community, and that includes generic language that everyone can agree to while disagreeing as to what it actually means.

    Now, "social justice" — there's a term that could use some discussion. Does it mean the pro-life movement (defending the preborn, the elderly, the handicapped), the civil rights movement in its prime (the 1950s and 1960s, seeking basic fairness under the law), the Innocence Project (which works to free people convicted of crimes they didn't commit)? That's the way I'd use the words. Does it mean helping people in need simply because they ARE people in need? That's a matter not of justice but of charity — a virtue, to be sure, but a different virtue. Does it mean believing that the reason some people have too little is because others have too much, and (a step further) that the state must forcibly redistribute income? That's where things can get dicey.  They may have some legitimate points in some cases, but they may also hold an ideological worldview that's bad stuff.

    You've got to talk to people to find out what they mean. Which gets me back to why I like to discuss language to begin with. It's an opportunity to clarify thought, to shed light, to seek truth. That's my idea of having a good time.

  • Yeah, but Matt, even that first statement you made is more associated with "Family Gender" than "Family Values." There are plenty of folks who are in a gay partnership and still have moral and ethical values -- sometimes better than those of a randomly selected straight couple. Saying that a two parent home with a mom and a dad inherently has more "values" than say, a single mom who bravely left an abusive situation so her children could grow up in a safer home, or a single dad whose wife bravely chose to battle cancer without treatment so she could deliver their child rather than terminate the pregnancy and take chemo -- is misleading and unfactual. And certainly, those are exceptions to the norm, except that once you start making those broad, sweeping generalizations, there will always be those exceptions. I would even go so far as to say that it is probably problematic to assume that a two-parent home has inherently more "values" that a gay home -- without getting into the weeds of judgement. Does that straight home, for example, have still have more "values" if the husband is cheating on the wife? What if he has a porn addiction? What if he is embezzling from his buisness? What if the mother is addicted to amphetimines? What if she presses her self-image issues onto her children and creates an environment that pushes them into an eating disorder? What if she works every night until after the kids are asleep? What if she smokes around the kids? Still absolutely morally better simply on the basis that there are a mother and father present?

    All of those nuances are why I have a big, fat problem with "family values" politicians and lobbyists who don't really value families at all -- they simply want to ensure that their prefered way of life is protected. They don't really care about the quality of family life, nor do they want to partner with anyone to try and improve it, they just want to ensure that life as they know it contines and then they slap a "values" tag on that -- I agree, that's language abuse!

    Social Justice on the other hand... Look, I'm a liberterian, I'm a fiscal conservative, so I totally understand being opposed to people getting handouts they didn't earn. But on the other hand, I'm also a Christian, and Jesus commands us to love and care for the poor, the impoverished and those who are worse off than ourselves -- one could logically make the argument that the Early church in the time of the Apostles was close to communism itself. The way I see it, people will sometimes have this attitude towards Charity that somehow says "I am better than." We contribute to third world "Missions" after watching a heart-wrenching video from the comfort of our padded pew in a slush account that might not actually send anyone to aide or assist the very region we are trying to help for months or years. We donate our old clothes to goodwill, we toss a $5 or a plastic bag with a tooth brush, some canned tuna and some baby wipes at a panhandler on the highway, but we don't really engage need, we just kind of throw money at it and hope it goes away and stops bothering us in the parking lot at Subway. And maybe that is because Charity has become an abused term itself.

    To me, the idea of Social Justice is closer to what Charity should be about, than perhaps what Charity has become. We all, to some extent have it better than we deserve. Though acomplishments are great, through no acomplishment of my mine, Jesus Christ died for my sins. It neither my fault or achievement that I was born into (relative) American priveledge, and that even though my accomplishments are good, laudable and a part of who I am, there are many people nationally and internationally who didn't start off on a level playing field with me. I can either ignore those people and ignore that fact, or I can try to use my position, influence and accomplishments to try and draw more people up out of poverty, not using government means, enforcement or laws (which is the more "liberal" response), but simply making a decision as a private citizen, that it is important to me to support and reach out to the hurting, the impoverished, and those who simply have less.

  • "You've got to talk to people to find out what they mean. Which gets me back to why I like to discuss language to begin with. It's an opportunity to clarify thought, to shed light, to seek truth. That's my idea of having a good time." Totally agree, matt! often words we think have no connotations (only denotative meaning) do in fact mean or bring up different things for different people. which is why we must always continue the discussion to ensure we're on the same page :)

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