Truth Telling and the Abuse of Language

Languageby Deana Chadwell    7/21/14
I suspect that there’s a certain amount of thought that can rattle around in a human head without the assistance of language – a certain amount of spatial reasoning, perhaps, a baby’s silent attempt to stack his blocks—something is going on in there.

But mostly we think with language – and here I define think as the function of reason, the analysis and assessment of available facts, the kind of clear mental function that should take place before a person votes.

If you were a member of an elitist group trying to get complete control of a logical and stiff-necked people what would you have to accomplish first? The citizens of that country would have to stop thinking, and since you can’t just pass a law against thought, their basic ability to think would have to be destroyed – gradually before they noticed.

The process is simple:

    • Encourage pot-smoking – make it more and more available and acceptable.
    • Lower standards for both teacher and student.
    • Give awards to everyone.
    • Fill both teachers and texts with propaganda.
    • Fill entertainment with the same messages.

But the most effective tool is one Orwell could see coming in 1948 – the erasure of our language. If one is looking for domination without all the mayhem of military takeover, then just render the language unusable –technology makes that easy. Through television, radio, and the Internet the attack on our language has been launched and is doing quite well; even conservative factions appear to be helping instead of hindering this effort.

Let me explain. I see four major techniques on this progressive Doublespeak express:

The first is the effort to thin out key words until they no longer mean anything at all. The word “racist” comes to mind. We don’t know for sure the origin of this word. One source claims it came from the French in the late 19th century. Some claim that Richard Henry Pratt coined it in 1902, and others say Leon Trotsky devised it in 1930. Whether or not the word was a communist brainchild matters less than the broad swath of behaviors it covers today – everything from actual (if I may use Eric Holder’s word) animus toward persons of a different race, or whites hating blacks (Blacks hating whites doesn’t qualify.), or it can merely mean anyone who harbors conservative principles.  This is especially confusing since it was conservatives, Republicans, who drove both the anti-slavery and the civil rights movements, but facts no longer support definitions. A racist is anyone who disagrees with any part of the progressive agenda, whether race is involved or not – the gay rights issues, for instance. In short the word “racist” has been so abused that it can barely stand on its own two feet.

The word hate has suffered the same fate. Hate used to mean animosity, aversion, disgust – a visceral and extra-strong dislike, justified or otherwise. Now it, too, just means harboring conservative ideals. Hate is a word so overworked that it has left me with no way to describe the vicious vibrations I often feel coming at me from the left, from the pro-government side of any issue. I recently saw a meme describing Tea Party people as rabid dogs. That’s a hateful thing to say, but this too is confusing since, according to current consensus, only rightwing folks can hate.

TheAnother method used to confound the language is to popularize linguistic prissiness or political correctness. This not only goes counter to freedom of speech, but it’s even worse because it changes so fast; we no sooner absorb the new correct term and the next time we say it, it’s been transferred to the offensive column. Remember Mexican? Then Hispanic, then Latino. The way the border situation is going in six months we won’t be able to say children.

It was only a couple of years ago that the world sported only two genders of human beings—male and female. Now Facebook allows folks to self-identify into 50 possibilities, only two of which are truly genders. I find this particularly perplexing. Do we have gender designations for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, the transgendered who dress in drag but haven’t had surgery, the transgendered who have had surgery but it didn’t go well? Do we differentiate between the men who have become women and the women who have become men? The 97% of us who are not confused about all of this are now called cisgendered instead of straight. Governor Brown in California has ruled against the use of the terms husband and wife in public documents. What will go next, mother and father? Brave New World, here we come — complicate and alter vocabulary adequately and you rob folks of the ability to think with clarity and confidence.

TheThe third attack on language is the use of words with no regard for their truth. The press keeps insisting that Islam means peace. Well if peace involves crucifixions, beheadings, kidnappings and rocket attacks, I think I’ll pass. Last week I watched Josh Earnest (Could he have a more ironic name?) insist that the Obama administration was indeed the most transparent in modern history. Does he know what that word means? The White House has also taken to the word tranquility. Global tranquility – the Middle East is in turmoil, our economy is barely running, our borders are being besieged – tranquility? But the administration assures us that the Mexican border is under control. Control? By whom? Perhaps that’s the loophole. I am also amused by the war on women. Doesn’t war involve explosions and dead bodies? American women have it better than women anywhere at any time in history. Speaking of the war on women, we can’t forget everyone’s favorite – “I did not have sex with that woman.” Well, what was it then? A game of hide-the-cigar?

TheThe last linguistic barrage I want to discuss is one both sides are horribly guilty of: hyperbole. Not that this hasn’t always been a problem in journalism; perhaps no one tells journalists that understatement is much more powerful. So many headlines, all competing with the other headlines, dive right into words like demolished, devastated, destroyed, slashed, slammed when nothing truly violent or important has happened. Today I read that Charles Krauthammer just “cut Obama off at the knees.” Even allowing for the figurative nature of that statement and granting Krauthammer’s articulate fury, it’s a bit much. Obama will continue playing president regardless. It’s mind-numbing, all the Fox News Alerts that just turn out to be the latest on where LeBron will play basketball next year or some lunatic remark Harry Reid just made. I’d like to see us save those intense words for the really intense times that are coming. We are going to need them.

It is linguistic truth that languages naturally change and we can no more stop that than we can stop a glacier, but we can arm ourselves against purposeful manipulation of both our speech and our thought. We must make no assumptions, jump to no conclusions and keep our dictionaries handy. We can make sure that we use our language with the dignity, the power, and the integrity it deserves.


Deana Chadwell blogs at ASingleWindow.com.
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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I’m blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing — and more keeps popping up — needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation.
I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.

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11 Responses to Truth Telling and the Abuse of Language

  1. Anniel says:

    My most tooth-grinding word of all time is using “unacceptable” for truly heinous things that cry out for the iron of will and power. What a namby-pamby word for mass murder, rape, torture, and genuine evil.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      What makes “unacceptable” so egregious is that the person saying it usually has no intention of doing anything about it. Sort of like Obama demanding that Putin have the Donbas rebels allow investigators into the crash site without saying what (or even if) he’ll do if they don’t cooperate. (By the way, I wonder how many people know that Donetsk used to be Stalino.) “Unacceptable” thus means something very unpleasant but not really unacceptable (or at least not quite intolerable).

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    A very nice summation of the problem. Of course, as Orwell pointed out in both in the novel and in his appendix on Newspeak, the ultimate purpose was to eradicate certain thoughts (such as anything involving political freedom) by eliminating the language in which they would be expressed. Modern liberals have taken 1984 as a political guide, not as a warning, so it’s no surprise that they do whatever they can to control language and banish politically incorrect concepts.

    As for hyperbole, I’m not certain how relevant that is. No doubt liberals are quite happy to make use of it to hype crises (such as global warming aka climate change aka climate disruption), but most likely there has been hyperbole for as long as there has been the sort of communication in which it was possible. I recall reading in a history of some aspect of the War of the Rebellion the comment that a “hardened reader” of the Official Records is unsurprised to find that a unit that is reported as being wrecked will shortly afterward be fighting effectively again.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I love this article. You’re becoming one of my favorite writers.

    It is indeed interesting how changing the language (changing the meaning of words) can have such a powerful political effect. And I can’t answer this question, but you made an interesting observation:

    I suspect that there’s a certain amount of thought that can rattle around in a human head without the assistance of language – a certain amount of spatial reasoning, perhaps, a baby’s silent attempt to stack his blocks—something is going on in there…But mostly we think with language…

    Clearly from the results of the political machinations regarding language, there is some essence of thought inherent to words themselves. We do seem to think in terms of words, wholly or in part. And if the shade of a meaning of a word is changed by its frequent application to another meaning, then that shade can soon eclipse the original meaning altogether. There actually becomes a sort of entrapment. Those who were used to a word meaning one thing (and which was understood as a good thing) are at a loss when this word comes to mean something else. I find that this is highly true of Catholics, for instance, regarding the words, “social justice.” They can’t seem to get what those words actually mean now (socialism and Marxism). So, through sheer ignorance or obstinacy, they facilitate the socialist/Marxist cause as they cling to the idea that, well, if it’s “social justice,” and other people are engaging in things called “social justice,” then it all must be good.

    It would be wise to simply come to terms that the meaning has been stolen. As I’ve told a Catholic friend regarding the phrase, “Do you mean public welfare or private charity when you say ‘social justice’?” He had no answer other than that “social justice” was so self-evidently a good thing that it was I who must be a bit off my rocker.

    The human animal does indeed seem stuck in words like a fly in honey. Flow the honey out of the lip of the jar and the fly is just along for the ride.

    But I think we writers here might note that there is another side to this. Words are the conduits of thought, and not vice versa — or can be. How often have any of you writers here sat down to write about a subject with the thought that you didn’t quite know what you thought about a subject until you’d written it down? This happens for me frequently, which is part of the fun of writing.

    Words themselves are mere tools, or can be. There is something that comes before words. Maybe it’s like that misty fog of electrons that they say hovers around the nucleus of an atom but can never be pinned down to any one place. But without this foggy, indeterminate cloud, the atoms would be quite useless in terms of chemical processes.

    Whatever the correct analogy is, we will try to gain the greatest accuracy of our analogies and ideas using words….words which aren’t themselves the final measure of accuracy. There seems to be some other immaterial “thing” that is the gauge of that — the pre-word thought, if you will. That is why, if we are good writers, we will struggle with trying to string the best series of words together in order to capture the meaning.

    Perhaps this flip side of the language-is-thought coin is what you get from careful thinking. Rare is the time when I let words do my talking. I let (or try to let) ideas do the talking. And words can assist with this or they can get in the way — particularly words that are in transition (for whatever reason). I just this afternoon, for instance, learned that “highly abled” is the new euphemism for handicapped. Me, I was wondering if there was a genius convention going on down the hall, for that’s why I think of when I think “highly abled.”

    That’s one reason we so often here at ST self-consciously discuss words — something that doesn’t happen on the Left. They truly seem yoked to the meaning of words as supplied by someone else. It’s as if they were all donkeys harnessed to a mill wheel. They have only one track, and that track is set by someone else. And even if they wished to think another thought, they are drawn around the wheel.

    For conservatives (at least thoughtful conservatives), we need not be beholden to words. We can, instead, articulate ideas. And ideas are like a river that flows and finds its natural level. That level may be with this word or that word, depending upon common usage. But the words themselves don’t (or shouldn’t) determine the flow.

    Thankfully, most words are not being changed for the purpose of turning them into political weapons. We thus don’t have to argue from first principles regarding words such as “truck” or “apple.” We can use the generally unambiguous meaning already built in. But enough words are being manipulated to make communicating to an audience outside of the well-educated (as opposed to the well-indoctrinate) a challenging task. There is a simple-mindedness that exists in the Left and that they intentionally impart onto others. An uneducated people are more easily controlled.

    But could I control Deana, Glenn, Tim, or Mr. Kung with mere words? Can you imagine me bamboozling them with slogans? Wouldn’t they stop and parse the meaning, the trap doors, and the disingenuous assumptions behind my words? Of course they would. In fact, that would be true of nearly all conservative writers because the politics of the moment (perhaps of any moment in any time) requires rebutting the forces of deception. And that tends to keep one’s linguistic knives very sharp and surely the thought processes behind them.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I suspect that there is indeed some level of thought that precedes words, and that if the words don’t exist to reflect it, the person will come up with ones that to (most likely modifying or reusing existing words). Thus, Orwell noted that the idea of Newspeak was that the word “free” could only be used in the sense of saying that a particular dog was free of fleas; but one wonders if somehow people eventually would go from there to other forms. It’s worthy of note that the appendix reads as if something eventually prevented IngSoc from achieving its goal. But it’s still dangerous to play around with such things, which is why liberal fascists are so eager to do so.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Agreed.

        And I think another aspect of this is one that I’ve seen given by several sources. It’s the “grab them by the short hairs” factor. It means that if you can get people to believe and say stuff that is obviously not true, you gain a psychological hold over them.

    • “The human animal does indeed seem stuck in words like a fly in honey.” Wow. Great line. I love the discussion of pre-vocab thought. Why else would we lament that we “just can’t find the right word?” Remember the line in Beowulf when the poet says that Beowulf “unlocked his word-hoard” as if he had a thought and then started rummaging about to find the words that fit.

      And I agree — I write to figure things out, not because I have things figured out.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        One thing I will say, Deana, is that words help us to structure our thoughts in ways we could not otherwise do – thus the “writing to find out what you think” phenomenon. Could we build as much fine-tuned ideas and understanding with the sort of pre-word consciousness that surely comes before words? We can look at mathematical language for an analog (and yet surely pi existed long before anyone began to jumble around with numbers).

        And learning to use words well is like laying tiles in the mind. Through artful use they help us craft a tidy mental landscape.

        But I still do believe the mind is supreme, if only because of how easy it is to intellectualize using words. Surely most conservatives know the pitfalls of this. Clever minds can easily craft castles in the clouds. We can take endless jumbles of words and make them sound as if we are saying something real and profound.

        We do this (I often do this) when we haven’t a fuller comprehension of some subject. That’s really why nothing advertises one’s comprehension of a subject than brevity. And the opposite is often true. Those who don’t know tend to go on and on. And this might actually be (I know it certainly is in my case) part of the synthesis process of “writing to find out what you think.” It can just as well, of course, show you what you don’t know as well.

        The intellectualization process can be an innocent gaff. But the ability to bamboozle (yourself or others) is a weapon in the hands of such people as Obama. And if Obama has one talent it is using words not to enlighten but for attack and intimidation.

        All those on the Left have had their brains mooshed up to some degree by the bastardization of language and thought by the Orwellian aspects of the Left. I write because I enjoy doing so. But it is also a path to erudition, wisdom, and refinement. And I don’t mean fancy-pants refined language using ten-dollar words when a five-dollar one would do just as well. I mean evaporating the cloud of ignorance that we are born with, one molecule at a time. And why shouldn’t we? Why should any of us here have as a goal to wallow in ignorance as Progressives so often do? Who claims to know everything? Who here doesn’t want to learn something new every day?

        The act of “thinking” can easily become intellectualizing and thus mental masturbation. But, with humility and a touch of knowledge (and the elbow grease it usually takes to acquire it), one can take hold of what surely most could consider God’s greatest gift to us: Awareness. And we can have the dull awareness of a slug or the sharp and rich awareness of a Socrates. It is in our hands (and our books).

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I think this represents simply the need to work things out, and that enables one to do so. As a computer programmer way back when, I sometimes found that discussing a problem with a colleague enabled me to solve the problem — not from what he said, but just from talking it out. Similarly, when I did a review of Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga (a series of stories set in a Kikuyu utopia), I had no idea what (if any) conclusion I would come up with until I wrote the article.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          when I did a review of Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga (a series of stories set in a Kikuyu utopia), I had no idea what (if any) conclusion I would come up with until I wrote the article.

          I’ve had the experience, Timothy, of writing a few short stories. They were not very good ones. And they involved a superhero type of character (sort of a dark comedy). And part of the fun was that I didn’t know what was going to happened until I wrote it.

          Granted, with that technique I couldn’t crank out novels like Stephen King can. I hear you have to have fairly elaborate pre-written outlines, put each character on a 3 x 5 card complete with traits, perhaps of map of your locale, etc. But for a short story you can indeed kind of wing it.

          And if what comes out is a bit shallow and dull (as mine was…although I thought it was funny), well, who said that the discovery process was all unicorns and rainbows? Failure, failure, failure, is a writer’s best friend. And re-writes.

          I used to be a part-time copywriter for advertisements and other business documents when I worked at an ad agency. I wasn’t a very good one. But it was in those years when I struggled over every word – often burying myself in re-writes until it was all a worse jumble than when I began – that I gained some fluency in the language. That is when I moved from trying to self-consciously craft a sentence to actually writing what I thought with some amount of smoothness.

          But to do so, you have to learn your tools. No one picks up a saw for the first time and cuts a board straight.

  4. K Aria says:

    All of that seems true and, no doubt, is indicative of intentional language corruption.

    And yet there has been an astonishing degradation of language in popular culture. For example, over the weekend I was playing an amateur sport on a field next to where some kind of organization was holding practice sessions for cheerleaders (all female, apparently all high school age). To get into the rhythm of things, the institute played hip-hop music that was thick with the f-word. In my generation, that would have been unimaginable. A couple of years ago, at a large indoor ice skating rink, the 20-ish lad who was in charge of the shift changed the music to rap, complete with all the f-words and n-words. I overheard the conversation between an irate adult sponsor of a school group, and that lad. He shrugged and changed the music, but did not seem to grasp what the problem was.

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