Those who believe dictionaries should not merely reflect the times but also protect English from the mindless assaults of the trendy will find that the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary lendsauthority to scores of questionable usages, many of them tinged with “politically correct” views. Purists will fume, but what is worse is that such permissiveness can only invite a further tattering of the language – and already has.
At its core, the Random House Webster’s is alaudable achievement, the work of many excellent minds. It is in the core’s wrapping that trouble lies and English suffers erosion, mainly because the editors choose to be “descriptive, not prescriptive”. As a result, numerous entries and usage notes, wafting in the sociological winds and whims of the day, are inconsistent and gratuitous, undermining any pretence of rigor, let alone authority.
Most notable in these pages is the influence of special-interest groups, prominently feminists and minorities. They are saluted, and placated, to the point where judgement is often skewed, and where tin-eared or casually invented words and terms are given approval simply because they are fashionable.
An added essay, Avoiding Sexist Language, offers some useful gender-neutral suggestions (firefighter instead of fireman). Yet browsers will find as well the stamp of acceptance on the dreadful her story (an alternative form to distinguish or emphasize the particular experience of women); the execrable womyn (alternative spelling to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequence m–e–n); and the absurd waitperson (waiter or waitress) and waitron (a person of either sex who waits on tables). Future lexicons, perhaps, will give us waitoid (a person of indeterminate sex who waits on tables).
Straining even more to avoid giving offense, except to good usage, the dictionary offers comfort to very short people (though not very tall ones) with heightism (discrimination or prejudice based on a person’s stature, esp. discrimination against short people); and to very fat people (but not very thin ones) with weightism (bias or discrimination against people who are overweight). Omitted, fortunately, are such high-fad content terms as lookism (bias against people because of their appearance), ableism (bias against the handicapped) or differently abled (alternative to handicapped).
Scores of new entries, however, demonstrate the extent to which rotten cliches and cute formulations can worm their way into acceptance. A celebutante, for example, is someone who seeks the limelight through association with celebrities; to mirandize (verb.), as in “mirandize the perpetrator”, refers to the Miranda rule that requires cops to warn arrestees (noun) of their legal rights.
The reluctance of Random House’s editors to make tough, perhaps even unpopular, judgements is an ominous sign. It encourages the self-appointed watchdogs, who bark at purported offenses and demand revisions that often border on the ridiculous. If these watchdogs get their way, other words and phrases, now listed approvingly by Random House, may suffer the same baroque fate.
It is just as well that the English language, so welcoming to precision and so rich with metaphor and vitality, continues to be a growing wonder. Like many living things, it needs constant pruning to flourish. The Random House version of Websters’s too could use some pruning – or maybe a good watch repairperson.
Fired. Can you learn from it?
Jennifer Ritt is on edge. Three weeks ago she lost her job in a major pharmaceutical company’s product group. Her boss, Jim Hanley, told her that his two product groups were being merged to increase efficiency and that some jobs had to be cut. Hers was one of them. He was careful to use all the euphemisms – “let go”, “pink-slipped”, “downsizing” – but the bottom line was that Ritt was unemployed.
Friends tried to console her, telling her that she was just a victim of the bad economy. In fact, 10 per cent of the staff – nine people, including herself – had lost their jobs. All were given relatively generous severance packages. Ritt tried to be positive; she reminded herself that she could now take that vacation to the Orient that she had always dreamed about. But Ritt couldn't shake the awful suspicion that she had somehow failed and that this “layoff” was actually a firing.
Hanley and Ritt had never clicked. He used to make fun of her rapid-fire way of talking, moving his fingers together as if they were chattering teeth. And seven months ago he gave her a lukewarm appraisal, suggesting that she needed to show more initiative. She had attempted to heed his warning, but the truth was that she felt his criticism was unfair. After all, she always did all of her work. What more did Hanley want?
Ritt wants to believe that her friends are right, that she was just a victim of circumstance. But she wonders: Might she have been one of the ones kept on had she performed differently?
The campus wars are primarily about language. One example: The radical egalitarianism now dominant on campus holds that nothing is superior to anything else. As a result, a great many words have been thrown down the memoryhole, including “primitive”, as in primitive peoples. Also endangered are animal metaphors (talk turkey, make a pig of yourself, snake in the grass, etc.), which are seen as species-ist attempts to imply that humans are somehow superior to pigs, turkeys, and snakes. Similarly, all references to humans are supposed to avoid any suggestionof superiority or inferiority.At one women’s college, the soccer coach was forbidden to refer to nonstarting players as “subs” because the term was hierarchical and hurtful to benchwanners everywhere.
“Remedial classes” is the conventional euphemism for catch-up lessons for students who flunk, or are way behind their classmates. Now a gassy new euphemism has appeared: “developmental”classes. Harvard,of all places, is one school that uses the term for its way-behind students (Harvard men and women don’t need remedies; they just develop). A broader trend is to eliminate the concept of student failure and poor work through new and vague language. For example, students in Clark County, Nev., who fail or scrape by with D’s are described not as borderline passing or failing but as “emerging”.Those who get A’s are “extending”, and those doing adequate or mediocre work are “developing”. “Develop” and “developmental” are surely among our mostsquishy terms, used in various forms to refer to failure and retardation.
Prettified language is all around us. A graffiti sprayer is a wall artist, a prostitute is a sexualservice provider,and one of the causes of death among young American males is “legal intervention” (e.g. getting shot by cops).
The world of doublespeak
Farmers no longer have cows, pigs, chickens, or other animals on their farms: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers have grain-consuming animal units.Attentive observers of the English language also learned recently that the multibillion dollar stock market crash of 1987 was simply a fourth quarter equity retreat;that airplanes don’t crash, they just have uncontrolled contact with the ground;and that President Reagan wasn’t really unconscious while he underwent minor surgery, he was just in a non-decision-making form. In other words, doublespeak continues to spread as the official language of public communication.
Doublespeak is a blanket term for language which pretends to communicate but doesn’t, language which makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant attractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids, shifts, or denies responsibility, language which is at variance with its real meaning.
We know that a toothbrush is still a toothbrush even, if the advertisements on television call it a home plaque removal instrument,and even that nutritional avoidance therapymeans a diet. But who would guess that a volume-relatedproduction schedule adjustment means closing an entire factory in the doublespeak of General Motors, or that energetic disassemblymeans an explosion in a nuclear power plant in the doublespeak of the nuclear power industry?
The euphemism, an inoffensive or positive word or phrase designed to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality, can at times be doublespeak. But the euphemism can also be a tactful word or phrase; for example, “passed away” functions not just to protect the feelings of another person but also to express our concern for another’s grief. A euphemism used to mislead or deceive, however, becomes doublespeak.
Jargon, the specialized language of a trade or profession, allows colleagues to communicate with each other clearly, efficiently, and quickly. Indeed it is a mark of membership to be able to use and understand the groups jargon. But it can also be doublespeak – pretentious, obscure, and esoteric terminology used to make the simple appear complex, and not to express but impress. Lawyers and tax accountants speak of an involuntary conversionof property when discussing the loss or destruction of property through theft, accident, or condemnation. So, if your house burns down, or your car is stolen or destroyed in an accident, you have, in legal jargon, suffered an involuntary conversionof your property.
A final kind of doublespeak is simply inflated language. Car mechanics may be called automotive internists,elevator operators members of the vertical transportation corps;grocery checkout clerks career associate scanning professionals.When a company initiates a career alternative enhancement program, it is really laying off 5 000 workers; a negative patient care outcomemeans that the patient died.
These last examples should make it clear that doublespeak is not the product of careless language or sloppy thinking. Indeed, serious doublespeak is carefully designed and constructed to appear to communicate but in fact to mislead. Such language is highly strategic, and it breeds suspicion, cynicism, distrust and, ultimately, hostility. If we really believe that we understand doublespeak and think that it communicates, we are in deep trouble.