“Words are, of course, the most potent drug used by mankind.” Rudyard Kipling
|Bland is beautiful in argot of the age
September 28, 1997
Pretend for a moment it’s the late 1770s and you’re a misérable eking out a miserable existence as a factory worker in one of Paris’s less fashionable quarters. One day, someone hands you a dog-eared copy of The Social Contract, a modest political opus written by incendiary champion of liberty and spanking fetishist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. You start to read. The first sentence of Chapter One is underlined: “Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains.”
You’re instantly intoxicated. The “drug” of his words is working its way through your psyche and emotions. The sentence is direct, declarative and imaginative. It speaks directly to you, and you proceed to devour Rousseau’s pamphlet with relish before feeling the need to share it with someone else. As we now know, The Social Contract became the Bible of the French Revolutionaries.
What are the odds today of finding words that inspire, motivate and, when put together, mean something worthwhile? Virtually nil. For all the reasons that Rousseau’s prose was inspiring, ours is stultifying.
Pick up a newspaper or tune into a news broadcast and count the number of times you come across abstract nouns like “process,” “equality,” “situation,” “system,” “event,” “diversity” or “communication.” These mushmouth words are the linguistic equivalent of white noise—they’re everywhere, but the mind barely registers them. The more they’re used the more invisible and empty they become.
Government spokesmen love this vagueness, because it can be used to obscure almost anything, especially when used with empty prepositional phrases like “in terms of,” and “on a daily basis.”
I submit that all of us are lab rats in an unofficial language drug policy experiment—just say “no” to content. If those who control the rules of political discourse—governments and interest groups—can condition us to accept endlessly repeated generic placebos—euphemisms, neologisms, clichés and circumlocutions—instead of real words, then we can be dulled into passivity and acquiescence.
“We do the thinking so you don’t have to,” could be a government slogan. This sounds similar to what George Orwell wrote about language in 1984: “The purpose of Newspeak was to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all, and Oldspeak [standard English] forgotten, a heretical thought… would be literally unthinkable.”
The Orwell analogy might seem extreme to some, but look at the way fuzzy generica has infiltrated the daily language. Where once we had “clerks” or “salesclerks” we now have “customer service representatives”—15 empty syllables to do the work of one or two strong ones.
Then we have “partner,” a term used by non-traditionalists to refer to a spouse or an inamorato/inamorata. It can mean almost anything—tennis partner? business partner? We also feel the need to qualify a generic noun, when a specific one will do. We now hear about a “movie event,” as if “movie” were somehow inadequate by itself.
One of the most famous placebos is “gender” for “sex.” Placebo dispensers insist that “sex” confuses the act of sex with descriptions of maleness and femaleness, but I think this is an excuse. I think we are afraid of short, potent words. “Sex” is a monosyllabic sibilant—short and sharp. “Gender” is a disyllabic palatal fricative—soothing and innocuous.
“Gender” is a grammatical term used to distinguish masculine, feminine and neuter nouns and adjectives. But it has all the right qualities to qualify as a placebo—it begs aural allusion to “tender” and “gentile,” and lulls us into a false sense of linguistic accuracy. This is important because an inordinate preoccupation with tolerance for everyone and anything—no matter how ludicrous or self-serving—precludes the right to make discriminating judgments or speak freely. Our linguistic drugs must not offend at any cost, so they must be replaced by placebos.
Unfortunately, those who have accepted placebos accept the barbarization of the language with equanimity. As reviewed in the Globe and Mail last month, a book called the Guide to Canadian Usage does not list “actress” because is insists on using “actors” for both men and women. (Thus there is no way to distinguish Pat Carroll from Pat McCormick.)
Using “actor” for women is nonsense. There is no reason for women to take offence at the suffix “-ess.” It in no way connotes disrespect, or diminishes the worth of women, but it does make our language more precise. Its only crime is that it distinguishes men from women in an age when linguistic precision is no longer fashionable. For that reason alone, “actress” deserves respect.
In fact, it would be eminently logical to have parallel masculine/feminine pairs for all occupations: e.g., ian/ienne; ist/iste; er, or/ress, ess; eur/euse; ant, ent/ante, ente; and k/que. Since we already have masseur/masseuse, aviator/aviatrix and comedian/comedienne, it’s only a small step to journalist/journaliste; clerk/clerque; and president/presidente.
Creating a female vocabulary would fight the onslaught of placebos and be fair to boot. We have become afraid of words because we live in timid times.
When Rousseau spoke of chains, he meant the enslavement of men to their need to earn money. As a result, they could not attend to their political well-being, and so became apathetic. As he wrote in Book III of The Social Contract: “As soon as someone says of the business of the state—‘What does it matter to me?’—then the state must be reckoned lost.”
What is true of the state is true of language.