The Word to End All Words

Since this is a blog about writing and often reflects on how words are used, I could not resist this topic (especially since it is everywhere in the media just now). By now, many readers will be familiar the word heard round the world (i.e. Our president’s blunt descriptor of a couple individual countries and an entire continent during an immigration policy presentation). Some news outlets struggled with how to specify the term without breaking broadcasting rules or local ethics laws or mortally offending customers. NPR devoted a segment to the decision-making process for how they reported the word (at first without saying it). Reactions varied from outrage and condemnation to accusations of “excessive pearl-clutching.” More than one of the online comments on the various news stories wondered out loud “What is the big deal? Have people never heard this word before?”

The “big deal” in this situation is context. If you are an ordinary person standing in the grocery line with your six pack and smokes during your time off and you utter this word (perhaps to describe that other city from whence hails the rival sports team or maybe just the store itself), it has little consequence. If you deploy it in a meeting at your place of work to describe the office (particularly the bathroom), it might be okay, depending on who is present and the code of conduct in the workplace. However, for many workplaces, if you are using the referenced word to insult clients/patients/superiors/etc., you should be planning in the back of your head for how to fit your fan, photos, extra shoes, hoarded snacks, and pet rock into your car, because you aren’t coming back. The president’s utterance of the word at the given time and place more resembled usage in an office meeting than in the local supermarket. In my office, as a fellow cube-jockey, he would have been in the parking lot with a security gaurd at his elbow before he could finish the sentence.

To be fair to the president, he denies use of the specific word, though he concedes use of unspecified “tough language.” He also took the time to deny having said nasty things about one of the offended countries (though sparing no comment about the whole continent he dissed). His followers explain that he was frustrated by the quality of the proposal laid before him and expressed his concerns candidly in ordinary “kitchen table talk.” This defense weakens in light of the fact this was not a kitchen table or a locker room where he was speaking.

There is plenty written about the wider consequences of the time and place chosen for the utterance in question. I am more interested in the singular power of the word to bring the conversation to a halt. The user of a strong word signals by its introduction that all listening and consideration has come to an end and the recipients do indeed stop listening once it has been introduced. Thereafter, the post-mortem discussions will all be about the word and the user, not the substance of the meeting. The abrupt disintegration of the immigration conversation left pundits asking on the radio this afternoon,”But what does the president really want? That’s still unclear.” Given the president’s reported distaste for the content of the discussion, he was likely pleased with the general outcome. Residents of the disparaged continent (and former residents, such as myself and my spouse) did not take pleasure from incident and, consequently, relations with that part of the world were weakened. Those of the president’s party who chose to express their own displeasure noted that the wording was “unhelpful,” which is true if the goal is to get to a viable policy solution (since the word has shut the process down at this point).

Let us return to the grocery line. I stood in such a line at a local supermarket once with a pair of young men in front of me and several families with children in parallel lines and behind me. The two men were conversing about a mundane topic but decorating their pauses with variations of a particularly potent four-letter invective, using it as teens in my era used the word “like.” Out of boredom and lack of interesting magazines to peruse, I measured the general frequency of use, finding the word present at least twice in every sentence.

The observed conversation led me to ruminate about the question of what these folks do when they are in genuine need of a nice strong exclamation. What do they say when they drop hammers on their toes (zounds? shazbot? dang?)? What do they say when they find out their roommate barfed on the bathroom floor and left the mess for others to clean up (blimy? goodness? jeepers? )? What about when they really want to tell someone (like the roommate who barfed) off? Go fly a kite? Curse words lose their snap with overuse, like a rubber band. Once robbed of their utility, they cannot be deployed to shut anything down, only to provoke laughter. Curse words, as noted above, also cause people to stop listening. I don’t recall what the young men in front of me were discussing because one word in various forms blocked it all out.

In my own writing, I avoid use of cursing, not because I am averse to using such words myself but because of the way they are generously sprinkled in other writers’ works as if to impress. One may argue that in order to be authentic and have characters who talk like “real” people, you need curse words and lots of them. After all, weren’t the men in line in front of me talking freely and naturally in an unrehearsed manner? Yes, it is true that some people swear profusely. It’s also true that I rarely hear such words in my work place (except the cafeteria, where people from other companies gather and some like to let loose at lunch), even though I know there is at least one true artist of the vulgar present (having heard the worst in other venues). Natural dialogue in our normal workaday context does not use strong words as punctuation and we find it works a lot more smoothly that way. For that matter, curses are uncommon in my family life as well. All of us are keeping our powder dry for that one shining moment when only the right words will do. We all know (because we are still employed) that it’s not likely to be at the conference table.

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Vulnerable Transgender Fetuses

Aside from being a great name for a grunge band, the title of this post contains three of the seven “forbidden words” recently communicated to the Centers for Disease Control by their leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are: diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based. I don’t know about you, but I like my public health interventions to be science-based. They tend to work better that way.

Some pundits mentioned the book “1984” as being especially resonant in this case on the subject of societies where words are forcibly expunged in order to manipulate perceptions of reality and control people. There is a whole world of dystopian science fiction built on the same concept. To be less bleak, one can think of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” sketch and reflect that all of them are said regularly now on cable and the internet, if not (a least one or two) on broadcast television itself. There must be something about that number seven. Perhaps it’s like the number three, so important to oral history and legend as a mnemonic device (3 pigs, 3 bears, etc.).

Actually, I think more of just one word, “Enciente,” the word used to refer to Lucille Ball’s pregnancy during the run of her popular sitcom in the 1950’s. The networks at that time forbade use of the proper English terminology for the condition but they couldn’t get around the fact that the actress was going to have a baby. They had worked so hard to assure that the on-screen couple stayed in their proper twin beds in enveloping pajamas only to have the illusion that they were affectionate but not sexually active be blown apart by the inconvenient truth. They couldn’t erase the reality of a fetus’ existence by choosing to sound French (’cause…everything sounds better in French?…Sacre merde) anymore than the U.S. government can by wiping out the term by which it is called.

Over and over, commentary (e.g. this piece for a Canadian news agency) on the seven words banished from the CDC over the last few days has highlighted the point that what words we use (or refuse to use) signals to our employees, our constituents, our policymakers, and the rest of the world what we consider important and worth doing. In the case of ‘science’ and ‘evidence with regard to ‘health’, leaving these two out of our discourse says to a world that is watching for our example (and those looking for our weaknesses) that what has long been known as the soundest approach to protecting and strengthening the well-being of our population is no longer our priority. Pretending this approach is no longer useful or important doesn’t make it so.  If nothing else, this episode has been an excellent lesson in the uses and abuses of official language.

 

 

Homage to Dotage

A recent article reporting the results of a survey for one word that summarizes our current president also noted that North Korea’s leader (or at least the translator who brought his words to us) managed to find a word that has fallen out of use in American English but quickly captivated its audience: Dotard. The same newspaper helpfully suggested several other lesser known insults to deploy in reply. This reminded me of  the “Shakespearean Insults” widget I once had on a web homepage (in fact “dotard” was used by Shakespeare). Political cartoonists have also had some fun with the idea of a war of words that taps into the vast reservoir of underutilized ammunition. If I had any hope of remembering all these great words, I would surely assist in preserving them like antique seeds in a seed bank.

As for the original article, I was interested as a qualitative researcher in the results of this experiment and the way they were graphically summarized. The most common word selected was “Strong” but the percent of respondents who selected it was not especially high (9 percent), indicating a low level of agreement. However, when the words were grouped by their connotations, negative words (some barely publishable) clearly dominated. I found that for myself it was difficult to come up with a word to summarize all that I think and feel on this subject. This may be because I am inclined to be over-wordy or it might be that I don’t think very fast on my feet. Whatever the cause, I salute those who managed to find one single word to do the job.

 

Groundtruths

When I used to work with GIS, I had a fondness for the term “Groundtruthing”,  which refers to the act of physically validating the data on a map. Mapmakers often rely on users in the field to verify the accuracy of a map. My husband, for example, frequents the hiking trails in Maine’s Baxter State Park and the adjacent Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument. When he spots a mistake in the way a trail is represented, he reports it.

Recently, I encountered a different kind of groundtruthing. In Seattle, there is a project called “The Poetic Grid“, which is assembling a map of residents’ experiences as recorded in their poetic observations. Poets of all types and level of experience contribute their work, which is assigned a dot on the map indicating the locale that is the subject of the poem. The next time you are grasping for a poetic subject, this concept of recording a place that is central to your life, in however mundane a manner you choose, may fit the bill.

A Spell of Trouble

When I spotted the headline in the local paper today, I did a double-take. I texted my distant spouse with a photo and he first replied, “I know.” And then, before I could write, “You DO?” He replied “Furry??” The paper had taken President Trump’s pronouncement that he would answer North Korea’s aggression with “fire and fury” and blown it up into a blaring headline that announced “Trump warns of ‘Fire and Furry‘”. As one of my co-workers pointed out, spellcheck would not have saved the day on that operation. There is no substitute for good, sound quality control (says the girl who left the “e” off of the word “note” in an email to clients yesterday, thus changing the spirit of the message).

I realize that the unmangled message from the president is very serious in nature but I can’t shake the image of a basket of puppies or kittens being handed out at a diplomatic meeting as an antidote to tense negotiations. Who knows? Maybe it would work.

A Hero for Our Time(‘)s

I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.