A Lesson in Liberty
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
It used to be that certain words were words and certain words were not—“ain’t” ain’t in the dictionary, they use to say, but now it is. And irrespective of how egregiously incorrect “irregardless” may be, that illigitimate offspring of a word now can also be found in dictionaries (with a usage note warning that careful users of English avoid it). The message is clear, and relativistic, keep doing the wrong thing and after a while it’s okay, standards be damned (or was that the Clinton presidency?).
At least irregardless, though, gets a useage note (an asterisk, as it were) warning of its quasi legitimate status, while other words achieve legitimacy through blind acceptance and popular apathy. One that’s bothersome is “impact,” because its noble meaning has been altered through useage, kind of like turning a race horse to the plow. Impact was what happened when your car crashed into a bridge abuttment, not what happened when cows muddied streambanks or people littered in a national park. It’s now the kind of word used by bureaucrats and academics, who talk like bureaucrats and academics, and then infect the rest of us. Why not just say “effect”—as in the effect development has on the environment. It’s safe to say Jim Harrison wouldn’t use the word while penning his taut, masculine prose, nor would Hemingway have. Impact fails because it’s nerdy, born not of the soul but of a dry mind. Seems we’re stuck with it, though.
All that contrived techie lingo resonates like fingers on a blackboard too. Tech Speak makes a body long for genuine Montana expressions like borrow pit, spendy, and gumbo. Those expressions have poetic character. “Interface” does not, although “in your face does”—what a difference a few letters make. And what the heck’s a favicon, a gigaflop, or an end user? I mean, who uses an end? Hard to say, but imagine the impact.
Then there’s all that sterile enviro-speak used to describe things that aren’t sterile in the least—habitat, environment, ecosystem, riparian. You’d think nature was invented by someone who never stepped outside.
Then there’s that contrived PC lexicon. “Illegal,” when applied to certain people, becomes “undocumented” (though laws remain on the books, documenting the illegality); Global Warming becomes Climate Change (easier to prove); and of course you shouldn’t name your team after Indians, but Packers, Saints, Yankees, and Celtics are okay (terribly inconsistent).
While we’re on the subject of words, this editor happened to use a multi-syllabic word at an apparently monosyllabic function—“mellifluous”. Always thought it was a great word, but you’d have thought he was speaking Urdu. Chagrined (look it up), he took a quick poll and found nobody knew what the word meant. Blame it on public education.
Hint: the word comes from mel, the Latin word for honey, and fluere, meaning to flow. As in P Diddy’s vocals are about as mellifluous as the sound of breaking glass. The sound is, in fact, cacophonous—it certainly does not flow like honey, more like rusty nails poured from a rusty can.
The language is changing so quickly, though, that even the best can’t keep up. The Oxford English Dictionary, that guardian of the Queen’s English, and the greatest work of scholarship in the world (it’s really big), took upon itself long ago the task of deciding what’s a word and what’s not. The test is simple. If it sticks, it’s a word. If it’s likely to disappear, it’s not. As a result, the Queen’s English has now become Uncle Sam’s and the Limeys are livid (we’re the best country). You can say Limey by the way, and Yankee, without fear of censure, or anyone taking offense, because Brits and Americans represent the apex of civilization, of privilege, as opposed to the Third World, whose inhabitants are supposedly more easily offended. Those are the PC rules.
Moving on, American English has become so predominant that even the OED people can’t deny it. Moreover, it has like flower pollen riding global winds (knapweed pollen if you’re French) cross pollinated other tongues to the extent that the world now has Franglais, Spanglish, and is working on Chinglish, complete with expressions that can’t be uttered in any other way except through those hybrid “dialects.” This linguistic birds-and-bees dynamic troubles the French (and Scrabble players), but think of all the place names we have in our area alone deriving from French explorers: Choteau, Rauche Jaune (Yellowstone), Coeur d’Alene (Heart of the awl), Grand Teton (Big Breast—leave it to the French), and we don’t give it a second thought.
In the end, language is a living self-organizing entity, like all mass dynamics spontaneously engaged in by human beings—traffic, crowds, economies, happy hour. Rules can’t alter human nature, which does as it pleases, hence the PC resistance movement. As reactions to natural processes, the rules can’t keep up. Liberty prevails. Dictionaries and language police nibble around the edges, while language has a mind of its own comprised of millions of people. Innately free, we say and do what we want—irregardless.