Category Archives: Language
Could there be anything worse than believing a situation is hopeless or discovering someone who has given up all hope? Such utter despair is unbearable, utterly devastating because nearly all of us cling to hope, even under the most trying of circumstances. We resist surrendering to the mindless workings of fate. We are not helpless; nothing is pre-ordained. It is possible to alter the course of events. Always, there is hope.
“Hope Springs Eternal” because we believe it so. It is an essential coping mechanism. While we cannot shape the course of future events, “hoping” allows us to play a part. Hope neutralizes defeatism, enables us to detect even the slightest positive indications. Hope is the driver of optimism upon which we base our lives. It motivates us to remain involved, to stay upbeat, to refuse to admit defeat whatever the odds. Give people hope and you tap into a deep reservoir of energy and attachment. (As the candidate of Hope and Change, Barack Obama ignited a wave of enthusiasm in the 2008 presidential campaign.)
Hope provides a way to postpone coming to terms with what may be inevitable (and thus we speak often of “false hopes”). We hope for the recovery of a critically ill person. It puts us on record in his or her behalf. It lifts the spirits of others, but without assuming responsibility for the outcome. When “there is still hope”, there’s no reason for despair.
Hope is a means of connecting to others, of demonstrating our concern for their well- being. “I hope you get the job.” “We really hope you’re admitted to the college of your choice.” “I hope you have a very joyous holiday.”
Hope enables us to demonstrate intention but stops short of commitment, i.e. it creates wriggle room. “I hope I can join you this weekend.” “I hope I can be back by 5PM.” “Hopefully I’ll have the first draft ready by Monday.”
It’s hard to imagine how we could get on with our lives without hope, especially when we encounter defeat and repeated discouragement. When the path to our goal is not at all clear, hope bridges the gap between intention and outcome. Hope can inoculate us against failure, fortify us for the struggles ahead. For that reason, and at all times, “we hope for the best.”
“Questions” represent a prominent cultural marker in America. We’re concerned here not with those proposed by outspoken skeptics, but with questions raised to produce additional information and enhance understanding. The more of those kind the better – a proposition broadly accepted. They’re regarded as a prime indicator of an enviable curiosity and an eagerness to learn. Endless questioning, for example, is perceived to be an essential attribute of childhood. We applaud children who are insatiably curious as they seek to understand the world around them and turn eagerly to adults for answers. Their inquiries delight and challenge us even as they force us to improvise at times and to be evasive when the subject matter is complex, indelicate or beyond their capacity to grasp.
In school settings, skilled teachers continually encourage students to participate in discussions (“Any questions?”) and reward those who do. Questions help determine if they’re communicating effectively while identifying areas of confusion and misunderstanding. Students, however, don’t always respond, often remain mute out of fear of exposing their ignorance or their inability to frame a question. (Fashioning an effective question can in itself be most challenging.) In an attempt to stimulate dialogue and demystify the process, teachers frequently resort to the somewhat mindless exhortation – “There are no stupid questions.” Perhaps so, though surely irrelevant or unfocused questions abound.
The proliferation of news and interview programs on radio and television have given special prominence to the question and answer format. Skilled, persistent and knowledgeable hosts attempt to elicit revealing responses from guests although the latter often are inclined to shift focus, become evasive , wriggle out of tight spots and skirt controversy. Often they simply avoid certain questions, claim prior restraint (viz. pending court case) or focus in on a minor unrevealing portion of the issue.
Or you will hear them say, “That is a great question.” What’s the message here? It could represent an effort to disarm the questioner, employ flattery to blunt aggressive follow-up and otherwise steer the conversation into safe waters. It may also be regarded as a
“great question” because the guest now senses a way to move the conversation in the desired direction, easily within his comfort zone and drawing it away from subjects best avoided.
But, what exactly is a “great question”? Now that’s complicated, but is, most assuredly, a great question!
“Heroes” – they’re a dime a dozen. Why else did we need to create a new category “super heroes”? “Stars” – they’re everywhere. To distinguish those of special radiance we presented you with “superstars”. This verbal inflation did not end here. “Legends” arrived to capture the elevated status and influence of particular individuals. But that no longer suffices. And “super legends” doesn’t cut it.
We could, one supposes, have fashioned a new word and worked for public acceptance, but instead we appropriated a term from existing inventory and attached new meaning to it. The word borrowed originating in the religious lexicon offered a reverential dimension suited to the purpose.
Surely by now you’ve guessed it – ICON. What it does is establish a new rung in the hierarchy, elevate the pedestal even higher. It forces us to distinguish the merely famous and ephemeral celebrity from the enduring, classic and consequential.
But does it? Is the term already undergoing devaluation? Have icons proliferated as rapidly as superheroes and super stars? Frank Sinatra is an icon, and so is Tony Bennett. George Washington and Abe Lincoln are icons, but recently Ronald Reagan seems to have joined them. The Mona Lisa surely qualifies, but apparently so does Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, and Andy Warhol’s Coca Cola Bottle. Have we set the bar too low or have we accurately identified what is significant and will endure? Only in time can we determine whether today’s iconic figures and creations are so described years from now. Meanwhile, we may best be served by rationing the term and avoiding rhetorical excess – while also considering what, after iconic, will come next.
WORDS TO THE WISE
Popular phrases come and go, enter public parlance, then fade from sound. When they’re hot, they’re everywhere; when they’re gone, you’d best drop them from your vocabulary or risk being dated.
Consider the conversations you’ve had in recent years and recall how abundant were such words and phrases as “hang out”, hook-up”, “party”, “hey”, “geek”, “It’s all good”, “You know”, and “whatever”. Then there was “think outside the box”, “win, win”, “at the end of the day”, “it’s not rocket science,” “awesome”, etc. When in favor they seem indispensable.
One word, not always cited has strong claims to inclusion in this discussion. It has enjoyed several years of almost universal usage in the United States. In darwinian -like fashion, it has bested most competitors, has come to dominate the linguistic landscape. Have you guessed it by now? ABSOLUTELY.
Pay attention, and on a given day, the word will be sprinkled among many a conversation. “Do you expect to join us on Saturday?” “Absolutely”. “Can you help me move this couch?” “Absolutely”. The word is, after all, strong, decisive and unambiguous, most welcome in a world too often lacking in clarity and conviction.
Still, there once was a time when linguistic diversity prevailed here, when people had choices. Responses could have included “of course”, “certainly”, “definitely”, “yes”, “sure thing”, “no problem”, “for sure”, “unquestionably”, but all are currently in retreat, no longer in contention. Can the current people’s choice continue to remain on top? Absolutely.
Thank goodness that among all the worrisome developments over the last several years inflation has not been one of them. Except, as we’ve noted elsewhere when it comes to language.
It’s mostly our young people who are leading the way here in redefining the boundaries. I have, for example, been struck lately how often in conversation the ordinary has been transformed into the extraordinary. Now it’s true that in the past we’ve employed such words like “incredible”, “wow” and “super” for situations not all that exceptional, but of late that tendency has somehow accelerated. The other day, when shopping for a computer with a younger friend, his response to my entirely middle-of-the-road choice was “fantastic”. In a restaurant recently I selected an entirely pedestrian dish which elicited an “awesome” from the waiter. Since when did meat loaf and mashed potatoes merit such enthusiasm?
Still, the most overused word now in vogue has to be “unbelievable”. Listen in on conversations – it is a recurring response; one that confirms the inflationary trend.
Will it impoverish our language? Not likely. What it will do is force us to summon forth new words that up the ante once the current terms lose their allure and appear insufficient.
“SEND THEM MY BEST”
“Send them my regards.” “Give her a hug for me.” “Tell him I asked about him.” “Remember me to her.” Such requests come all the time. We make them as well. Do people actually follow through? Do we?
Let’s acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of such messages are still-born. People usually forget or may conclude that the request represents more of an afterthought, mere convention than sincere intention. And often that’s just what it is. Rather than engage directly with another, it’s easier to communicate by proxy, sparing yourself the time and effort of direct engagement. Still, messages on occasion do get through. And recall how delighted you’ve been at times upon hearing that someone’s thought about you.
So remember how good it feels, both to give and to get.
“Straight talkers”, most believe, are people to be admired. They don’t “hem and haw”, “beat around the bush”, “play fast and loose with the facts”, or deliberately deceive. Still, they are the exceptions. We expect that most in conversation will omit certain information, will tend to exaggerate or tailor the story to suit their purposes. “Truthiness”, as comedian Stephen Colbert reminds us, may be as close as we can come to the truth.
That may explain why firmly embedded in our everyday exchanges are words and phrases that attempt to reassure others that we’re leveling with them. We want them to banish any doubt and to trust what we’re telling them; and so we sprinkle the conversation with phrases like “In all candor”,”“I’m not kidding”,”frankly” or”seriously”.. When we detect some skepticism we declare, “I swear to God”, or “Believe me”. Sensing continued disbelief we’re quick to interject, “To be honest with you” (which would seem to imply that up to then we’ve not been). When we reach the point where belief is critical we’d best preface it with, “To tell you the truth”, an effort to allay all remaining doubts.
So, you see that our language incorporates a defensive strategy, an awareness that our words are not always taken at face value. The remedy is sincerity plus repeated verbal assurances that our words represent the “God’s Honest Truth”.
Racial remarks made in public, intentional or otherwise, are off the table these days. The climate’s changed; boundaries have been redrawn. Just think of those public figures who’ve gone down in flames after ignoring the altered landscape and failing to rein in their impulses. When forced to defend themselves, you can expect the accused to respond in much the same way. “I don’t care what color you are – white, black, yellow, green, blue or orange. It doesn’t matter to me. I treat everyone the same.” Such a comeback they assume will defuse the situation. Mixing real skin colors with imaginary human hues creates, they believe, an effective protective palette.
But can we believe them? Why should we accept their assertion regarding green, blue or orange people? How many have they actually met who fit these descriptions? Can they provide evidence of their evenhanded treatment of these diverse racial types? Or is this just a rhetorical smokescreen – an attempt to dilute and draw attention away from their inflammatory remarks by citing supposedly benign associations with non-existent beings? When such green, blue or orange individuals do come forward, we may uncover additional evidence on this matter.
AXIS OF EVIL
Early in the 2012 campaign Mitt Romney questioned whether President Obama’s order to strike against Osama Bin Laden was in fact a bold decision noting that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order”. That off-the-cuff remark deliberately tapped into the general perception of Carter as largely ineffectual and unassertive. If even Carter would have approved such an attack, no special credit was due Obama.
Romney’s response illustrates the fact that we frequently resort to shorthand in our public conversation, tapping into a lexicon of names and incidents from the past, which are commonly identified with failure, evil, even tragedy. There is, it seems, a ready repository, even when not entirely accurate, from which to draw. Historical memory is uncommonly acute in these instances, though why such unfortunate memories remain embedded in our minds is not entirely clear. Though it’s a stretch to believe that people “Remember the Maine”, doubtless most can identify the Titanic disaster a century ago.
Our survey first takes us beyond our borders where historical examples abound. Whatever the circumstances, referencing Hitler or Stalin is undeniable shorthand for monstrous behavior and evil personified. There are not many shadings either when Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein are mentioned, both considered irredeemable tyrants, enemies of freedom at home and determined antagonists of the United States. Osama Bin Laden, though he led no nation, nevertheless represented an abominable fanatic committed to ceaseless violence under the guise of religious fervor.
Pearl Harbor surely stands for perfidy most heinous. Munich represents a policy most reprehensible and a potent charge of spineless capitulation. Close behind is 9-11, the horrific attack on our homeland that killed thousands and exposed Americans to the painful potential of suicide attacks. The Bay of Pigs also belongs here to remind us of our repeated failures to topple the Castro regime. Linked to it in some ways is the Tet Offensive in Vietnam which, despite actual events on the ground, led Americans to question official assurances that victory was in sight.
Back home we have access to an array of dismal developments. The Great Depression represented a startling challenge to our belief in the inevitability of economic growth and wellbeing. McCarthyism in the 1950s taught us how a demagogue could stampede a society into repressive measures. The Savings and Loan crisis of the late ‘80s was a wake-up call alerting us to the potential for great harm when banks were allowed to operate free of the usual restraints. The same was true of the elaborate pyramid scheme devised by Bernie Madoff who managed for years to escape detection. But then his schemes were dwarfed when the Housing Bubble burst exposing financial flimflam of vast proportions.
Watergate demonstrated the abuses of Presidential power while Monica Lewinsky exposed a president whose personal defects kept him from fully realizing his potential. Natural disasters, generally unavoidable became catastrophic when combined with human failure. Hurricane Katrina revealed the inadequacies of flood control measures while BP’s massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico reminded us of the deadly consequences of human error.
Turning from error to violence, the United States has had more than a few shocking outbursts beyond the obviously high profile assassinations of Lincoln, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Oklahoma City Bombing opened a window into the paranoid world of anti-government elements while the Unabomber demonstrated how a disenchanted loner-turned- terrorist could keep an entire society in the grip of fear. Columbine represented mass murder by young people of young people, a horrendous outburst that led Americans to wonder and worry about the violent impulses within the youth culture.
Pearl Harbor, Unabomber, Bay of Pigs, Katrina, Madoff, Watergate, Castro… these people and events have not faded away. Rather, they have become durably evocative, stored in our national memory bank, available for use whenever we wish to alert and warn contemporaries about the darker shades of our past.