“Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide –that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life –are alike forbidden.” So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), the American author and poet and father of the better-known and similarly named Supreme Court Justice. Words are the “signs of ideas” (Samuel Johnson), both shaping and heralding the coming attractions of intellectual, cultural and moral life, and the subtlety with which words change meanings – forego old ones and embrace new one – can define the very society in which those changes occur.
In other forums, I’ve addressed the political uses of language – how whether one terms the heartland of Israel “Judea and Samaria” (the biblical and historic names) or “the West Bank” (a concoction from 1950, which also induced the [mythical] Kingdom of Transjordan to become the [mythical] Kingdom of Jordan) speaks volumes about one’s political views on Israel’s “possession” (or “occupation;” same point) of that part of the Holy Land. Examples are legion and these days affect every area of life. Part of the asymmetrical warfare waged today against the civilized is the use by the Muslim terrorists of the language and values of Western civilization – human rights, liberty, freedom, self-determination, etc. – as weapons in the battle for public opinion, and in order to demoralize the civilized societies. No Muslim society grants to its citizens the rights that terrorists claim is being deprived to them by the “evil” West.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “the genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express,” or sometimes in the ways that words are used to misinform or mislead rather that enlighten or educate.
For example, Congress is now debating whether to “make permanent the Bush tax cuts of 2002.” I certainly hope they do, not because government doesn’t need the money but rather because government cannot be trusted to spend most of it in any rational or productive way. People who recklessly run deficits in the trillions of dollars – and then boast about providing great “constituent service” – should not be trusted to run a newspaper stand, much less a government. Our governor, Chris Christie, who acts like the only adult in a room of whiny children, is gaining popularity by preaching the obvious: don’t spend more than you have, and don’t commit to buy things you can’t afford. What novel concepts, so jarring to his contemporaries that he is considered in this liberal state wildly popular with a 52% (!) approval rating.
The point here, though, is that even if the tax cuts are made “permanent,” there is nothing permanent about them. These reductions will not be “everlasting, eternal, undeviating, etc.” – they are “permanent”…until some other Congress decides to change them, in other words, not permanent at all, but just permanent enough to quell the uprising brewing in the circles where people actually think trillion dollar deficits are unsustainable. So “permanent” here does not mean “permanent” – except in the sense that it is no longer temporary. (Another example of the inherent distrust of elites addicted to spending other people’s money: the Deficit Commission is recommending lower tax rates in exchange for elimination of certain common deductions or exemptions. The problem is that, invariably at some point, the rates will be raised again – but those deductions will never return.) So now the talk is of “extending” the Bush tax cuts; good, they’re catching on.
Holmes’ comment about the fatal treatment of certain words is readily apparent in groups that describe themselves euphemistically in order to promote a political agenda. For example, the cheery English word “gay” has been hijacked already for decades by the homosexuals, to the extent that its original meaning is almost extinct and cannot be uttered in a sentence without provoking snickers. I am always suspicious of people who characterize themselves by an adjective when a noun is much more appropriate. (Atheists, following this pattern, have taken to calling themselves, somewhat wishfully, “brights,” but that has not yet caught on.) And “gay,” meaning “merry or carefree” hardly fits the description of a sexual inclination, whether homosexual or heterosexual. It is also a mystery how and why heterosexuality came to be known as “straight,” the opposite of which would be “crooked,” although, not knowing any heterosexuals who call themselves “straight,” I sense the term came as well from the homosexuals. “Gay” does project a positive, upbeat, buoyant spin to a lifestyle fraught with challenges, to say the least; but who else self-defines using an adjective that is unrelated to the group’s practices, interests, lifestyle or cause? And why must the rest of society be bound by that self-definition?
The word “queer” has also been derailed by the same group, although it still retained its customary usage even 25 years ago. Once upon a time, “queer” was a faintly amusing description of something that was unexpected, odd, or curious. Nowadays, it clearly has pejorative connotations, and its use by social convention is limited to the homosexual community.
Speaking of which, it is indeed queer, in the sense of perplexing, that some words are seemingly licensed for use by certain groups and prohibited to others. I once publicly, and innocuously, used the common term “yekke,” – an endearing reference to German Jews (likely origin: the yekkes, or jackets, they kept wearing in pre-State Israel, defying the more relaxed sartorial conventions of the day) – and was accosted later by a German Jew offended by my use of the term, saying that since I am not a German Jew, I do not have the right to use it. That was the first and only time that reference elicited such a response, which I have heard used thousands of times. This particular gentleman told me that my use of the term stung him, as “if I had used the N-word.”
Indeed, some words are so sensitive today that they can only be referred to by a letter, and the N-word is at the top of that list. It is another of those words that only members of the group are allowed to use, and blacks routinely call each other – in print, in lyrics, and in idle conversation – the N-word with little consequence. I have a hard time with the notion that some words are permissible to some people and prohibited to others; something which is offensive should always be offensive. It doesn’t become less offensive if an insider uses them, unless to begin with the offense is contrived. Yet, Dr. Laura Schlessinger recently resigned her radio program (she has since re-surfaced on satellite radio) because she mimicked the use of the “N-word” by blacks, something that, as a white woman, she was not allowed to do by the authorities who decide such things.
The sensitivity towards the N-word has led to the death of a word that I regularly used in the 1980s and 1990s – the word “niggardly,” meaning “miserly or cheap.” Its etymology has no connection at all to the N-word; yet, the phonetic similarity, I seem to recall, led to the resignation of a DC bureaucrat in 1999 who made the mistake of using it as an intelligent person would and not as the hyper-sensitive simpletons in his office understood it. He was later returned to his job; the word itself has been discontinued.
Then there are the words that play on ethnic stereotypes that the PC-crowd – and each offended group – has long sought to eradicate. Some verbs, like “to jew” (meaning to cheat, or to bargain down), have been banned from polite discourse, even as others, lacking the organizational muscle (or perhaps just the interest) to bring about their repudiation, still linger in the public domain. The truth is that the use of “jew” as a verb is just as offensive as the use of “gyp” (swindle, from Gypsy), or “welsh” (cheat, go back on one’s word, which the English perceived as a problem among natives of Wales). Curiously, or perhaps not, most of these ethnic verbs (or nouns, like Indian giver) involve some sort of deceptive practice from which victims generalized to the nationality of the deceiver, rather than the trickster himself, or herself. For sure, all these words (and there are others) are colorful, but they should be given a disrespectful funeral and be buried once and for all.
Our Sages always reminded us of the power of words – to inspire, to educate, to challenge, to intimidate, to sanctify, to profane, to comfort, or to uplift. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Indeed, the Talmud (Arachin 15b) states that man is given a number of safeguards to ensure that he only speaks when appropriate and only says what is appropriate; after all, his tongue is shielded by teeth and lips (“a wall of bone and a wall of flesh”) and must advance beyond those fences in order to talk. We are to think first and speak second, and then recognize that our speech reflects our thinking – but influences it also. As Samuel Coleridge, the 19th century British philosopher said, “language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.” Among those “future conquests,” or at least battlefields, will be the realm of morality, the war against terror and the struggle for decency and kindness towards all groups and all peoples.