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.

 

 

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.

Making History

As a life-long fan of history and archaeology, I have been saddened to hear of great treasures torn asunder by war in the Middle East.  Some lesser-known treasures have suffered obliteration closer to home. I think of my visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient city in the heart of the United States that was partly swallowed up by pavement.

It’s a time-honored tradition in a way, wiping out the memory of those who came before. You can see places on ancient monuments where later visitors worked to wipe out the names and images of others, whether it’s modern graffiti vandals etching over historical relics or Egyptian pharaohs knocking out the images of their predecessors. The value of history in teaching us about our nature and potential is part of what motivates those who destroy. They do not want us to share that knowledge and grow away from them.

Writers do their part in rescuing these vanishing scraps of heritage by documenting them in many ways. They can be the sources of both fiction and non-fiction material. Written works and pictures can draw attention to them and make the case for preservation.

I recently began participating in preservation itself by volunteering as an archival transcriptionist for my state archives.  My task is to take scanned documents and type their contents so that they can be searched by researchers. Among the benefits of doing this work is learning more about the language use of persons from another era, always a valuable body of knowledge for a writer. I also find that poring over words written in the past, often with pen strokes that preserve their gestures, is a moving experience.

While it’s true that my new sideline is yet another distraction (along with my art ventures) from actually writing my next book, I don’t see it as time wasted. I like to think that I am helping keep a few small pieces of our shared human story in hand.

 

 

More Horrible News

No, it’s not Donald Trump winning the presidency. My only comment on that is related to a post on another blog where I noted that Rachel Maddow sarcastically exhorted our governor to “stay classy” but my advice is for him to “stay funny.” Someday historians will unearth articles about Paul LePage and Donald Trump and conclude they are fiction of a dark humor type, because in the abstract they can sound very much as if someone made them up. I have no doubt Mr. Trump will be entertaining as president and hopefully it will be in a good way.

Mention of Mr. LePage brings me to Maine’s best-known horror writer (heck, best-known writer, period), Stephen King who tweeted a super-flash fiction story that went: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Donald Trump and he ran for president. Some people wanted him to win.” Some of those people were probably comedians and late-night show hosts.

I am more interested in what Time magazine published last week in their innocence of the pending dramatic twist in the election. Never mind the cover story or various editorials. My eye fell hard on their ‘chartoon’ entitled “Horror-Movie Plot Generator.” Besides the fact that this piece is a few weeks too late for Halloween (but just in time for, well, election day), I was struck by the inclusion of this item in the “contextual” column: In Maine.

I don’t know if we Maineiacs should be honored or insulted by such a mention. This is the only specific place name on the list. It may be a tip of the hat to Mr. King and/or the many stories he has written that take place in Maine. It may be wise-acre homage to our governor. It might just be a random whim. It’s just interesting that someone thinking very hard for at least 20 seconds thought of this as one of the most recognizably scary places, right up there with “a hospital,” “an old house,” and “the woods.”

Anyway, at least now you have another helpful tool to get you out of that rut and start writing about…Newlyweds in space butchered by an ancient evil thing…

Just Another Martian Monday

In my local paper this morning, the regular naturalist writer, who covers everything from snails to supernovas, posted a piece on how time works on Mars.  According to this article, there are authors who (unlike me) have written about Mars without glossing over the issue of how one manages the disjoint between Mission Control time on Earth and another planet with different lengths of day, month, and year (as well as two moons). In particular, he cites a thoughtful time-keeping tweak proposed by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars to help Mars-base staff stay in sync.

When NASA finally does get us onto Mars, they may well look to fiction as their model, in the same way Star Trek probably paved the way for Siri (though I am very disappointed with our web-conferencing tools at work for not looking anywhere near as cool or working as well as the ones on a show from over 40 years ago).

I am daily reminded of how disorienting time can get when reaching across time zones to meet with colleagues. One poor fellow staggered out of bed this morning for a meeting with us chipper East-coasters and at points seemed unable to remember what we were talking about. “Needs a gallon of coffee,” I texted a colleague just as our comrade muttered (unnecessarily), “Man, am I tired!”

Then there’s the clock in the common hall of our office complex. For a time it was stopped altogether but then began to run several hours off (ahead? behind?). Lately, it has been 55 minutes behind (I think) on average but sometimes less. I distract myself all the way to the door every morning wondering why no one can seem to get it running on regular Eastern Standard Earth time but I am no longer able to trust it if it does. Of course, I can just ask Siri, I suppose (thanks, again, to fiction writers).

A Picture’s Worth

Lately, the coffee shop crowd will greet me with, “How’s the book?” In fact, I have set aside my writing project for now to work on visual arts projects. Since some of my book covers have come from past art projects and working in another medium stimulates creativity in general, this does not feel like a bad trade. I have set up a new blog devoted to recovering old art projects and documenting new ones, as well as recording the results of my “haiku-a-day” project.

In reply to my admission, the writer among them grins and says knowingly, “Same with my book.” The implication is that I’ll never finish. With 18 books under my belt (some of which waited over a decade in an envelope in a closet to be published) I am neither worried nor hurried. My present book will get done when it and I are ready.