by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 8, 2003
WORDS CAN HARM, WORDS CAN KILL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- News that the American Dialect Society named "weapons of mass destruction" as its "word of the year" came not a moment too soon.
Like many others, I've spent the year wincing at that phrase (not a word, ADS), which seemed to pop up like a rabbit in heat as the country spiraled deeper and deeper into George W. Bush's mad obsession with Iraq. But the ADS claims it's been around for 50 years. Why am I not surprised?
Writing in 1946, George Orwell perfectly described this kind of language: "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
We should all beware when language is corrupted, because it cheapens both our lives and our culture. Yet catchwords, euphemisms, disinformation, propaganda, and the hijacking of perfectly fine words for nefarious purposes are far too common today.
Take the overly-abused "healing," like this ridiculous ad in The New York Times: "Meet Kazuko, the high priestess of crystal jewelry and preview her... healing sculpture." While jewelry can certainly affect our emotions, it's not exactly penicillin, is it?
Clichés are can be annoying, like this year's "ratchet up," but other words can stifle our thinking, like "closure" which is used for everything from a death in the family to a scratch in the family car, or "issues" and "challenges," which hide the fact that you have "problems." Why say "pre-owned" or "vintage" when you mean used? Why say "supersized" or "ultrapremium?" Aren't "the largest" and "the best" good enough?
The most dangerous language, however - Orwell's purest wind - comes from the Bush White House.
What does "weapons of mass destruction" actually mean? We've seen perfectly innocent jet planes turned into weapons of mass destruction. An Uzi fits that description. So does a bomb - any bomb, even one strapped to the waist of a deluded terrorist. So does a nuclear weapon. So does an anthrax spore. How about a machete? A contributor to "The 2003 List of Banished Words" (from Lake Superior State University) writes, "A few thousand machetes in the hands of an army in Africa can lead to mass genocide."
Does the meaning depend on how many people actually die? How many people does it take to make a mass? Sounds like a light-bulb joke. A sniper in Washington is a mass murderer. So is a British doctor who kills 30 elderly patients. And how do we bridge the numbers gap between them and Adolph Hitler, or the U.S. in Hiroshima, or 9-11?
What makes matters worse is that people are now using shorthand: WMD. The acronym bleeds the term of any possible relationship to human life; it makes, as Orwell said, murder respectable.
To my ear, "Department of Homeland Security" comes straight from Orwell by way of Soviet Russia. Homeland? You mean America? Who else's land would we be making secure? This land IS our land. How about a Department of Security? Why haven't we had one before? Has the Defense Department failed?
Bush's "regime change" was voted "most euphemistic" by the ADS, but its toxic meaning was quickly neutered when everyone else got into the act. "Regime change in America" was my favorite.
"Evildoers" is a hideous word. It's not only awkward but self-righteous. It also reduces the complexity of the world to meaningless generalizations. We already have enough serviceable words: bad guys; criminals; outlaws; terrorists; enemies.
James Carroll in The Boston Globe correctly identified the current linguistic muddle as "a crisis of language."
"The United States is a splintered, lost country where words have been emptied of meaning," Carroll said. "That is a symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome, our national malady. We have been unable to give expression to terrible experiences. Our worst fears remain subliminal, but we recognize them in each other's eyes."
Carroll believes that Bush, "proudly inarticulate, has no real understanding of the relationship between words and acts, between rhetoric and intention."
The North Korean situation is a perfect example. Bush rattled off a bunch of countries in his "Axis of Evil" speech to make the world seem even more threatening to Americans than it really is. But he was oblivious to the fact that there are real people living in these countries, and that they might take the words of the President of the United States very seriously.
We can make fun of Bush's linguistic failures, but we should be wary, says Mark Crispin Miller, author of "The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder." In an interview with The Toronto Star, he said that Bush is "a sociopathic personality" who is only inarticulate when he's trying to appear warm and friendly.
"He has no trouble speaking off the cuff when he's speaking punitively, when he's talking about violence, when he's talking about revenge," Miller said. "When he struts and thumps his chest, his syntax and grammar are fine. It's only when he leaps into the wild blue yonder of compassion, or idealism, or altruism, that he makes these hilarious mistakes."
Remember when Bush said, "I know how hard it is to put food on your family"? According to Miller, Bush stumbles because he doesn't care about people who can't put food on the table. He is a detached and wealthy man who is unable to identify with the people he is supposed to lead. And if he can't identify with ordinary Americans, what chance is there that he can identify with oppressed Iraqis or starving North Koreans?
"He's a very angry guy, a hostile guy," Miller said. "He's much like Nixon ... I call him the feel-bad president, because he's all about punishment and death."
Carroll takes this idea one step further. "As a candidate, Bush openly displayed his willful illiteracy," he said. "At a loss for words, and proud of it. Many voters were charmed. Others were appalled. Few understood, however, that this abdication of leadership by the intelligent use of language would be dangerous to democracy at home, a grievous threat to peace abroad."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.