Articles in The Ecphorizer about words and word usage bring to mind some observations I have developed during years of tussling with the English language.
Words have power. Our choice of a noun or adjective can bring into play whole galaxies of attitudes, prejudices, or expectations. In the Introduction to his Study of History, Toynbee tells how using the word “native” facilitated the establishment of the great colonial empires. While talking about the same individuals, people felt justified in pushing “natives” around in ways that would have been unacceptable with “persons” or “inhabitants.”
A more current example is the word “substandard.” When it is revealed that farm workers (or Cuban refugees or hippies) are living in “substandard housing,” for example, legislators rush to produce corrective laws without asking whose standard is being violated. In fact, as the term is commonly used, something like 80% of the world’s population lives in “substandard housing.” The standard, then, is enjoyed by very few, and the best is only slightly better than OK. This is the inverse of the size names given to bottled olives, where the smallest are called “colossal.”
Recently [1981'/>, no less an organ of rationality than The Christian Science Monitor deplored the fact that safety inspections showed that 35% of nuclear plants were “below average.” This obviously cannot be tolerated—steps must be taken to assure that they all become better than average.
Another instance of creative nomenclature was seized upon in the New Deal. “Progressive” taxes are those in which the percentage rate increases with the amount subject to levy (e.g. income taxes in America). Note that they are not called “exponential” or “increasing-rate” or some other more accurate term. The objective is to put them in the same sacred class with motherhood and The Flag. Who could vote against “progressive taxation”?
There are laws against using the U.S. mails to defraud, but none against using the English language to defraud. Nor can we hope for any, for our lawmakers are among the most flagrant violators. The best solution is for each of us to vow to protect and respect our language. We could even start an official movement—calling it, say, the Honest Truth Movement. It would be a natural fund-raiser, for who is going to refuse to support The Honest Truth?
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.
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