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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Say What You Mean (Before they change the words)

          [Before I get started, some business needs attention.  First, Thanks to Bonnie, Robert, C.R., and Nine.  Though these people all have personal access to me on a daily basis, they left their comments in print as a permanent part of the post.  These Interlude sections only top the site for two days, and it's hard to judge the effects of a change when it's that brief, but I do appreciate it.  If y'all do that on the main article, which stays up for two weeks, hopefully we'll all see a difference.  Second, a huge and heartfelt welcome to new Follower, Richard Nichols.  Richard is one of the best friends I've never met.  We know each other through our blogging activities, and have had many stimulating conversations over the past year.  Richard is everything I'm not.  First, he is from Northern California.  Anyone familiar with the California culture knows that people from North and South share a disdain for one another that can slide through contentious and right into nasty at the drop of a hat.  My regular readers know me as, not a Rush Limbaugh fanatic, but probably a solid Reagan conservative.  Richard has described himself to me as a "Flaming Lefty," and posted a series of articles about his life as one of those draft dodgers that I would have cheerfully shot 45 years ago (In fairness, I would have done a lot of things 45 years ago that I wouldn't consider now.).  He is a gifted visual artist, which I am not; he is an insightful poet with an eye for social commentary, college educated, wealthy enough to indulge in the travels that grace his blog.  I am none of those things, yet neither of us seem to mind.  His blog is linked in my sidebar, and I most highly recommend a visit.  Mind and spirit will be enriched for the effort.  Now, to today's rant...]

WARNING: This post contains references to homosexuality.  There is nothing graphic, but it acknowledges the existence of the lifestyle.  Proceed at your own risk.

          By the time you've been around for six decades, you have garnered enough experience to see trends in action.  One that has caught my ear, and driven me to distraction is the trend of Word Mutation.  I first noticed this in the early 1970s, as it was practiced by attorney-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell.  Howard was the first big personality to make his mark on Monday Night Football, and also was a tireless promoter of Mohamed Ali's career.
          For those too young to have had the pleasure, Howard was a stentorian courtroom orator who brought his melodramatic delivery to the halftime highlights.  He had a tendency to wax poetic about shut-down defenses, and the word he beat to death was "awesome."  Particularly "awesome" were the weekly performances of Dick Butkus, "Mean" Joe Green, and Curly Culp, to name a few.
          When I was a child, awesome meant, well, awesome.  It was a useful word describing a level of excellence midway between fabulous and superb, and when you heard it, you knew you were about to hear about something awesome.  Nowadays, stemming directly from this overuse in the '70s (which Howard didn't, couldn't have done alone; he had a lot of help), awesome is pretty much synonymous with barely adequate.  You can even hear it used as a joke to describe pathetic ineptitude.
          I call this Word Inflation, and awesome is a great example of how television can influence the way we use language.  But television runs a poor second to the instant social media that pervades every aspect of life here in the 2000s.  The single worst offender that I have yet to see is the word friendFriend used to mean someone that you loved like a close sibling, not because you had to, but because it was such an enjoyable and fulfilling thing to do.  I know that when I say, "I am your friend," what I mean is that I will step in front of a bullet for you; I have twelve close friends, eleven of whom are my spouse or blood relatives.  But what everyone else seems to mean by friend is that they've clicked you on Facebook.  The number of "friends" a person has is a body count, a row of trophies that simply must be larger than yours.  When someone says they have over 200 close friends, it's a pretty safe bet that they're including the kid who bagged their groceries at the store, and the teenage girl who sold them a ticket when they went to the movies.  The word has lost all the rich connotations of its history through our own misuse, and when somebody tells you, "I am your friend," it's probably worth your while to find out just what they mean by that.
          I define Word Mutation to be when the meaning of a word is deliberately changed before our eyes to mean something that was never intended.  Before I get started on the prime example, gay, I'm going to make a statement of disclaimer.  I'm not going to mince any words; all I ask is that you read the whole statement before you kick me in the crotch:  As a straight man, I find pretty much everything that male homosexuals do to and with each other to be thoroughly repulsive.  One of the things that I find more repulsive is telling someone else that they are not entitled to the basic rights that I enjoy because they don't live like I do.  Hopefully, everyone is clear on that.  Feel free to ask if you aren't.
          Gay, like awesome, was at one time a useful little word that described a condition of happiness somewhere between giddy and atwitter. Now it describes a male homosexual, and there is no gray area where it can be used in any other connotation. This is an example of a word that was shanghaied by a vocal minority, and hammered into a completely new form right under our noses. I can certainly appreciate that no one enjoys being called a "fag" or a "queer." There is no way to spin those to make them sound pleasant, and a non-pejorative word was certainly needed, but come on, fellas. The word for a female homosexual, "lesbian," has stood unchanged since before I was born, and no one mistakes it for anything else; I had my mouth washed out with soap at the age of six for repeating it, and it was another ten years before I found out why. Did you have no imagination, or did you seize that word on purpose as a show of empowerment? By the way, the word still turns up in its original meaning in old songs and movies from my youth and before, and I have to confess that it still reduces me to stitches when one of those wavy-haired dandies from a '50s drama says, "Frank certainly seems gay today." But really...
          A word in the process of being changed as I write this is collectible.  Where "gay" was changed because there was a social need, collectible is being changed because there is a need by greedy bastards to separate you from your money.  Collectible has always been an adjective, as, "Those state quarters are collectible."  In a process that has been visible for more than a decade, it is well on its way to becoming a noun, as, "Those state quarters are collectibles."  Pick up almost any magazine and open it at random.  You won't have to turn too many pages before you see an advertisement for some worthless piece of garbage that you wouldn't bend over to pick up if you saw it lying in the street, and the biggest word in the ad is COLLECTIBLE!  This is an almost subliminal attack on your sense of values, an attempt to make you think that this thing (usually a small figurine) that you wouldn't put a dime in a gumball machine to get somehow has intrinsic value.  The reason this has been able to get traction among consumers is that, in a sense, what they are saying is true; anything can be collected.  But let me tell you something.  You can spray lacquer on every dump your Golden Retriever takes, and arrange them on the shelf in chronological order.  That is certainly a collection, but it doesn't mean that it has any monetary value, nor indeed that anyone will ever want to see it...
          Consumer culture is basically a war between the untrained and relatively unsophisticated consumer who is trying to stretch an increasingly inadequate paycheck to meet his needs, and the highly trained and aggressive advertising sharks of Madison Avenue, whose mission in life is to take everything this consumer has.  One technique they have mastered is really rather simple: They bludgeon us mercilessly with a word or term until we believe that what they are describing is desirable.  There is no greater example of this than the SUV.  Our local NPR station has a motto that goes, "If you don't have an opinion, someone else will have one for you," and the sales of SUVs are a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
          Early in the 1970's, gas shortages and high prices killed the great American muscle car and ushered in an era of fuel efficient (for the time!) compacts that were long on utility, but short on character.  About a decade later, Detroit and Tokyo realized that they could make much more money if they could sell everyone a delivery van.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into the advertising machine, and out came ad after ad after ad extolling the virtues of the Sport Utility Vehicle, briefly shortened to Sport Ute, and finally the abbreviation we all know so well today.  They pounded and pounded and pounded away until they somehow convinced a nation that had been in love with the Mustang and the Camaro that these nine-ton urban assault vehicles were attractive performance cars.  We, too lazy or preoccupied to be bothered to think about what they were saying, swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker.
          So today, in the late summer of 2011, we see 60%+ of America's soccer moms driving around in armored personnel carriers that they in no way need, that cost twice as much as a sensible car of similar value to buy, to insure, to fuel, to maintain, all money that comes directly out of her family's budget.  But, hey, the car company that sold it to her is happy, and if she is too, then who's hurt?  By the way, I suspect this phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining why Kim Kardashian and those drooling idiots on Jersey Shore are celebrities...
          I'll leave you with this story of how social media is changing the basic infrastructure of emotion itself:  About six months ago, I was watching a YouTube video of a kid who ate the shiveck on a skateboard.  He wasn't injured, but he was badly embarrassed, and I must confess that I found it hilarious.  As did all his friends who were present on the video, but as the pack of insensitive teenagers burst into spontaneous laughter, one kid, instead of laughing, shouted, "L-O-L!"
          Now, folks, I don't begin to possess the predictive skills to guess how it could get any stupider, but I'm reasonably sure that it will.  To those substantially younger than myself I say, it's your language.  Defend it if it means anything to you.  To those of my own generation, I realize that it's social suicide to stand in front of this tidal wave of fatuousness.  I suggest that you need a defense mechanism, and as a starting point, here is mine:  I constantly remind myself that I am a tourist here; I came here with nothing, and I will be leaving with nothing.  Once you can master that attitude, it frees you up to enjoy the cabaret, and occasionally point and laugh, which is sort of what I'm doing here...
          Now get out there and live life like you mean it!


  1. Wow Jack, that is a lot of philosophizing. Your rant is right on target about the cheapening of society and the bastardizing of words, but loses a little by comments about homosexual men. Your repulsed by men going together to the movies, having dinner, holding hands? You would be surprised how ordinary our gay and lesbian friends are.

    I know you made a disclaimer, and I get that you are tolerant, but really, gays, blacks and other minority people got tired of being kicked around, and that is why they became the "vocal minority", and stood up for themselves. I've been accused of being the "vocal minority" because I've stood up against the local greed heads here is town.

    Anyway, you got a rise out of me, I took the bait.

  2. Hellooooo, Richard... Good of you to stop by. Allow me to begin with an apology to you and everyone else. It is never my intention to offend anyone for the way they look, live, believe, or anything else that does no one harm. The sad fact is that you cannot live in a society without offending people, as witness the way your views on the Viet Nam War offended a lot of FBI agents who didn't even know you. I decided before I clicked the first button to begin setting up this blog that if I wasn't going to print the truth, at least the truth about my own feelings and opinions, that there was no point in going forward. As you can see, I went forward.

    Perhaps I should have been more graphic. Even as I type that, I realize it has no place in this forum. Suffice to say that I am referring to the bedroom activities of our gay friends, a couple of whom I am familiar with, by the way. I have a gay in-law, and a coworker (in my department, not my office) who is as pleasant and helpful as anyone I've ever met, and I wouldn't object to going to dinner or a movie with either one of them; if they wanted to hold hands, I would probably be reluctant, not because I suddenly dislike them, but that would make me uneasy. Would I go to bed with them? Not with a gun to my head. Sorry, that's my honest feeling, which should never come up in a casual conversation.

    Thanks in large part to my job, I have black, Asian, Latino, and Pacific Islander friends (people I like, not necessarily that I would step in front of a bullet for), and thanks to my sons, I have more Mexican in-laws than I could possibly list on a blackboard. With the exception of a couple, based on things they have done as individuals, not their race, religion, or any other generality, I like them all. The wonderful woman I wrote about has the Queen Mother of all afflictions, which I am not going to post publicly, but I will discuss by e-mail if you wish. When I said in my post that she was the "office whipping boy," it was because of this factor, and one of the cornerstones of our unbreakable bond was my tireless and aggressive defense of her to anyone who tried to start up on her, so I know something about persecuted minorities. I would not deliberately offend anyone for any amount of money, but like I say, you can't be alive without offending someone. My Conservatism offends some Liberals. My whiteness offends some blacks. My income is offensive to some whose means are less. And, on it goes...

    Let me end as I began, by apologizing to any and all who may have been offended by anything I've said here, owners of shelves full of collectibles and SUVs included; lovers of Jersey Shore; people who say "awesome." The post was about the transmutation of words, not my views. How offensive would it have been without the disclaimer? I will apologize for things I say, and some things I do unitentionally, but I will never apologize for who I am; I came a long way to get here...

    And, thank you so much for stopping by. This, my friends, is a discussion, and pretty much qualifies as one of those "stimulating conversations" I alluded to in my welcome.

    Live well, be kind, and stay safe...
    - Jack

  3. This thing ate my comment AGAIN! I want to use some colorful words right now, and I don't mean "blue" and "red." But...let me try to recreate the gist of it.

    It's odd that you would post about this right now. Brian and I were having a conversation the other day about a news story I had seen regarding the new words added to the dictionary this year, words like "sexting," "tweet," and "bromance." Now I realize that I am part of the (relatively) young crowd and that it is (likely) my peers adding all this slang to the dictionary, but not all of us are happy about the dumbing down of our language.

    I don't know if it's because I was an English major, or maybe because I don't follow the slang and consequently don't understand what it means, but I absolutely hate it when someone texts me, "how r u?" I get that it's easier to abbreviate in texts, but I also think so many people write and read this way that many are forgetting (or never learning) how to spell. When people find out that I text in complete sentences I am typically greeted with some combination of open-mouthed shock, laughter, or eye rolling. The single most common response is, "Why?" Why? What does that mean? Because it's correct, that's why.

    If it's any comfort at all, our language is fluid at least, so maybe some of these silly "words" will go away at some point. We can hope. I do have one question though, which I will address to anyone that reads this and can provide a reasonable answer. If abbreviation is intended to shorten words, thereby making them more efficient or convenient to write (or text) then why is the abbreviation for "girl," "grrrl"? What did the vowels ever do to anybody? Knowhatimsayen?

  4. Offending SUV drivers, collectors of doodads, greed heads, crooked politicians and other such lowlifes is OK with me, it fact it is a duty to point out the stupidity of mindless BS in our society. The offense comes when the person offended has no choice in the matter, such as African Americans or gays for that matter. (oh I know that is debatable for gays, but not to me).

    Anyway, I liked most of your commentary, but just don't offend a flaming liberal such as myself!

  5. You have a deal, my friend. See, I'm self-educated, and in some respects, self-righteous, a dangerous combination that sometimes leads me into unforeseen consequences. But know that I do not intentionally take others to task unless they are intentionally evil, and I would be pressed to ever consider trading the privilege of being your friend for the right to hold an offensive opinion. Obviously I don't have to tell you this, but feel free to jump in whenever something lights your fuze. It's a risky path out here, but it's good to see you're still along for the journey!