By the time you read this, we should know who our next president is (please, please, please don’t drag this out). The winner will have a rough transition no matter what, especially thanks to a very brutal campaign.
Much has been lost in the course of the campaign—logic, courtesy, common sense, decorum, among other things—but for even the most laid-back word nerds like me, one loss hits harder.
That would be the loss of meaning.
Words have been used in this campaign in ways that don’t fit their real definitions. For example, criminal—as a noun, it means someone who has been found guilty of a crime.
To avoid the possibility of libel suits, responsible journalists don’t call anyone a criminal who hasn’t been convicted of a crime—the First Amendment, like all the amendments, has limits, and libel (or spoken slander) is one of the checks on freedom of expression/press; knowingly calling someone something they’re not is just asking for a lawsuit.
A responsible person would never call someone who hasn’t been convicted, much less charged, a criminal. But politics now … messy, paranoid, loud and reactionary … eh, it’s not exactly responsible.
Don’t like someone? Criminal! Obviously that person has committed all sorts of criminal activity from murder to drug-running to treason, and probably also kicks puppies and kittens. Evidence, charges and a court verdict are not needed as long as that person is unlikable or is a threat to your aims, especially if you’re not exactly squeaky-clean either.
Similarly, an honest person is someone who doesn’t lie or cheat … at least according to most sources. In politics, though, someone “telling it like it is” is apparently the definition of an honest person.
Of course, “telling it like it is” now means telling people what they want to hear regardless of actual truth since the truth involves facts. And facts are, well … inconvenient. The end result is that what was once a demagogue—one whose fiery rhetoric, often full of lies, appeals to greed, fear and hatred—is now a truth-teller.
I so want to throw a dictionary at these people. Quite possibly the unabridged Oxford.
And I’m suddenly reminded of a quote from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou:
“In order to be profoundly dishonest, a person must have one of two qualities: either he is unscrupulously ambitious, or he is unswervingly egocentric. He must believe that for his ends to be served all things and people can justifiably be shifted about, or that he is the center not only of his own world but of the worlds which others inhabit.”
Gosh, no idea why that popped in my head … 😉 That description doesn’t sound familiar at all.
Words have undergone semantic change before—broadening or narrowing of applicable context, elevation or deterioration of meaning, or a complete shift—but that generally happens over time. It took a long while for “gay” to mean homosexual rather than lighthearted, and for “terrific” to mean splendid rather than causing terror.
I place my hope in the fact that a couple of years is not generally long enough for the definitions of words like “criminal” and “honest” to broaden permanently to the point of meaninglessness as they seem to have done in the current atmosphere, fed as it is by hyperpartisan politics. In the past and now, people with ulterior motives have worked consciously to change meanings, often for political purposes.
As Roy Peter Clark wrote on Poynter.org in 2009:
“Words are often weapons in culture wars wielded by ideologues to gain the high ground in argument, debate, policy and propaganda. In the post-Reagan era, conservative politicians worked to redefine the word ‘liberal’ so that it moved from a neutral to a negative meaning. So the warring sides in the abortion debate see words like ‘choice’ or ‘life’ as positive or negative, depending upon their positions. Or, as has often been noted in describing the violent politics of the Middle East: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’”
And what some see as staying true to the meaning of words (and trying not to get sued), others see as political correctness. Since I loathe political correctness, you should be able to guess my intent. While I’m far from a strict grammarian, continued blatant, intentional misuse of words concerns me, and makes it difficult for people to be understood.
Yes, words, like political parties (today’s GOP is certainly not Lincoln’s, for example), evolve and sometimes end up diametrically opposed from where they started, or at the very least in a different neighborhood, sometimes with the trees already TP’d.
“Demagogue” once meant a popular leader before it underwent deterioration, thanks especially to people like Joe McCarthy. “Enormity” is a favorite of politicians of all stripes, and a word that, when used to mean large, makes grammar grouches even grouchier (yep, it’s indeed possible). However, the word nerds among us understand that while enormity historically means great wickedness (admittedly apropos for politics), contemporary (mis)usage has broadened the definition to include the state of being huge (or yuuge, in Election 2016-speak).
We can’t stop the natural evolution of words, but we can at least try to be more careful in how we use them … at least if we want people to understand us. Of course, politicians don’t really want that, soooo …
At least for a little while, we had newsroom kitties at the Democrat-Gazette. Before I left work Tuesday to come home to await an online column from one of our writers after polls close, the online folks set up a couple of shelter kittens in the currently unoccupied office next to mine. The plan was to run a live feed on the newspaper’s site Election Night for those people who wanted to take a break from all the nasty stuff that’s gone on in the campaign. (They were usually sleeping whenever I’d check in … and that’s very relaxing.)
One of the two kittens was a real escape artist, so before I left the online folks were trying to put bigger barriers up (because if there are no kitties in the enclosure, why have a kitten-cam).
Too bad we can’t have kittens in the office all the time. Of course, the boy wouldn’t like me always coming home smelling like other cats. Dang it.