“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Very early in my life, it was clear that I was going to be good with words (and not so good at other things, like sports). Somewhere along the line my dad sat me down to talk about the importance of language: Words were precious bearers of truth, he said, which must be used responsibly, not just for effect. The message stuck with me. So I’ve long hated the postmodern idea that words don’t really mean anything — that they’re just tools of power to make people think whatever you want them to think.
Language abuse is all around us. Take lovers. The word should be reserved for people whose relationship is marked by real love — the lasting commitment of marriage. Often, though, lovers is used to refer to unmarried people having sex. (Unmarried to each other, that is; frequently married to someone else.) This always struck me as a perversion of the word. These relationships are marked not by love, but by the absence of love, properly understood. The last thing we should do is romanticize them.
In a similar vein, take adult — as in adult movies or adult entertainment. Talk about euphemisms! Once again, a word that should connote the best qualities (maturity, responsibility) is being hijacked to describe something more nearly the opposite. I’d say more on this subject, but Calvin & Hobbes already did it better than I could.
I could keep rattling off examples all day. (The world of politics alone could furnish me a couple hours’ worth.)
Because language abuse is so widespread, many people either stop noticing it or just shrug it off the way we shrug off much of the advertising which surrounds us. Big mistake. Language abuse is thought abuse: It deadens our minds, eroding our ability and inclination to think clearly and seek the truth. Far from letting ourselves get blasé about it, we should keep an eye out for it and fight it whenever we spot it.
Stopping language abuse starts by identifying the problem. Let’s hear some examples that you’ve noticed.