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  Interesting article from the folks over at JSTOR.

 

     “According to Willinsky, “The schooled representation of meaning sets language in the hands of those who hold the proper definitions.” In other words, appeals to the dictionary serve a political purpose; they preserve existing power structures, and fortify the way things are at the expense of the way things can be.

     It can appear trivial to expend so much energy on worrying about how we speak, because speech seems less tangible than physical action. But definitions always matter. In the judicial system, for example, they are key in assigning blame. The “reasonable person” standard is applied in self-defense cases to determine culpability; in this context, “reasonable” means average, ordinary. As legal scholar Jody David Armour writes in Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, this definition of reasonable “takes the merely typical and contingent and presents it as truth and morality, objectively construed,” a pretty low bar for justice. Consider how a “rational person” test or an “omniscient person” test might change the meaning of criminality.

     Similarly, there was a time in the American South when blackness, that thing that determined where one could eat, drink, and sit, was codified into law as having “one drop” of black blood. And migrants fleeing violence in Central America are rarely granted asylum in the United States because of the legal definition of “refugee.” There are profound consequences from definitions, and they should not be ceded to the staff of a reference book.

     Even words without legal import can hold incredible power. Speech can’t bruise skin, but it can break a spirit. Is a feeling any less real because it happens “under the hood?” Is heartbreak not real pain? Why do we describe hurtful words as a punch to the gut or a slap to the face? For so long, the free speech debate has been built upon an incoherent premise: that speech is powerful enough to solve social ills, but can’t inflict as much damage as a fist.

     When is speech violence? It depends on how we define it. If we define violence as a physical act, then speech is never violence. If we choose to define violence as causing harm to a person, then speech is often violence. If we choose to define violence as intentionally causing harm, then sometimes speech is violence.

     If there is to be one takeaway from the work of Wittgenstein, it’s that nothing is essential in language. He spent his entire life feeling around for the atoms of speech, only to discover that he was grasping at an illusion. Language is what we say, what we mean, and what we understand—different meanings for different people in different contexts.”

Interesting stuff.  I think I’ll have to read some more Wittgenstein.

I no sooner published my first word rant and immediately more common travesties of language sprang to mind. Part two will be more of a rapid fire format, as there is a lot of ground to cover.

..And Get One Free!

As alluded to in Part 1’s final paragraph, ‘…and get one free’ tacked on the end of a sales pitch is marketing verbal violation at its worst. ‘Free’ means ‘at NO cost’. When advertisements use it, they mean ‘at no ADDITIONAL cost’. This a huge and very important distinction. “If you pay $, you get x and a FREE y” is incoherent as getting the “free” y is dependent on you paying $. I have no idea what there hasn’t been a massive class action suit against all major corporations for false advertising.

May Or May Not…

‘May’ and ‘may not’, when used like this, mean the same thing: that the outcome under discussion is not certain. It is redundancy with no extra information. It is fluffy language without even the ignoble goal of sounding unduly reputable. I’m not saying the two terms are always perfectly interchangeable. Rather, in the cases where they are, one is sufficient while both is a waste of words.

Swearing

Words are tools, and when one hears a swear word used exquisitely, it’s like watching a master carpenter strike in a nail with one blow without the tiniest dent left on the surrounding material. It can be magical. Unfortunately, most people have no grasp on the art of swearing at all. Its more like watching the spazoid kid in shop class rain hammering death on a 2×4 until the bent and twisted nail is lodged sideways in the now mangled lumber.

Literally

‘Literally’ does not mean ‘a lot’ or ‘extremely’ or ‘I’m not joking even though this is an unbelievable story’ or any variation or combination of these. Not even close. Literal is the opposite of figurative. That’s it.
‘I pissed myself laughing’ means a)figuratively ‘I laughed a lot’ b)literally ‘my laughter was so great that I lost control of my bladder and urinated into my pants’.
Note that one could have laughed more in situation A than in B. ‘Literally’ has nothing to do with quantity, seriousness, or truthfulness. It dispels any notion of metaphor and hyperbole and instructs the listener to interpret the words plainly.

Supposably

This one isn’t even caught by my spell checker. I am so depressed. ‘Supposably’ is NOT a word. What you are looking for is ‘supposedly’. To test it out, look at the root word in each case. ‘Supposed’. Yup, that’s a word. “The supposed “good guy” just robbed a bank”. Now try ‘supposable’. Nope, definitely not a word.

Irregardless

Another one that just isn’t a word. I don’t know how this started, but I’ve heard some otherwise brilliant people use this horribly stupid non-word. It makes me sad on the inside. ‘Regardless’ means without regard. Putting another negating prefix ‘ir’ in front would be like a double negative in math, they would cancel out. ‘Irregardless’ would be as intelligent as Bill & Ted’s “un-un-heinous”, if people actually meant it that way. But users of ‘irregardless’ don’t mean it that way. They use it as if the ‘ir’ accentuates the ‘less’, so they’re actually being even dumber than Bill and Ted. That’s impressive, and not in a good way.

No one is perfect, and one’s grasp of language should always be growing. Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of being creatures of habit, people are not apt to realize their common mistakes, unless they are expressly pointed out to them. Please, if you know someone who uses fluffy language indiscriminately, throws out buzz jargon without thought, or continually says things that just don’t make sense, tell them. Or send them to this rant. Education and awareness are our best weapons to combat this plague of verbal misdeeds. Also, feel free to make additions to this word rant in the comments section. Together we can save language!

…Or at least fend off its impending doom a little bit.

–Addendum–

A couple of recent encounters reminded me, quite painfully, of one more common and egregious misuse of language

Seen

‘Seen’ requires another verb used in conjunction with it to be used properly. I have seen many strange things. This is what will be seen today. It is never allowed to be used as just a regular past tense of ‘to see’.

“I seen a movie last night.”

NO NO NO! You did NOT ‘seen’ a movie! You saw a movie last night! Now go sit in the corner and think about what you have said! You can come back when you can conjugate ‘to see’ properly.

I hate the word ‘utilize’.

There is an art form to selecting words. One mustn’t be drab, nor overly verbose. Large words should be used for clarity and precision in terms of expressing one’s intent. They should NOT be used to merely for the sake of making the speaker sound smarter or more official. As my wonderful philosophy professor once lectured, this makes your writing [or speaking] ‘fluffy’. It takes up lots of space, but has little substance. Further, if one is hellbent on using an impressive sounding word, make damn sure it means what you think it means. When people violate these two rules, I think back to that professor and how I ought to correct the culprits in his honour. Guillermo, this post is for you.

The first example of the misuse of words comes straight from the lecture that ultimately inspired this post. ‘Utilize’. This word is the epitome of ‘fluffy’ language. There is not one instance where the word ‘utilize’ adds any meaning that could not be derived from the word ‘use’.
Indeed, the only time ‘utilize’ is used is when the speaker/writer wants to sound smart and gain extra credibility without earning it. Try it out. The next time you hear someone say ‘utilize’, check the context. They are most likely trying to convince their audience of a) their position, b) their intelligence, or c) their import. Further, if you take their sentence and put in ‘use’ instead of ‘utilize’, you will find that not one iota of meaning has been lost.

Let us compare this to another pair of words: ‘end’ and ‘terminate’. Like the set in our example, they are synonyms. However, there is an important difference. Compare the following:

“My job was terminated today.”
“My work day terminated at 4:30 today.”

The word ‘terminate’ has a sense of finality to it that is not present in ‘end’. In our first sentence, ‘terminate’ conveys that the speaker was fired, that their job is no more. It is a valid use of a large word.
The second sentence doesn’t sound right, though, as the speaker is merely speaking of what time they finished their job that day. This conflicts with the extra meaning associated with ‘terminate’. As the message doesn’t contain the extra meaning, it is an incorrect application of the larger word. Read the rest of this entry »

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