Language Abuse

You all know about: child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, patient abuse, employee abuse and animal abuse.  Those are some of the unfortunate ills that plague our society.  As ugly as they are they’re pretty straightforward and obvious.  There’s nothing subtle about those kind of abuses.  But, what about something that is more subtle and insidious?  What about language abuse?  No.  I’m not talking about abusive language.  (That takes it’s toll on a society, as well.  But, that’s a topic for a different discussion.)   I’m talking about abusing the written and spoken word.

Language abuse is almost always done with a kind of emphasis, and/or inflection, to connote a negative meaning to a word that wasn’t designed – in any way – as a negative.  It isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but we’re seeing it more and more, in the media and in politics – especially in politics.

Probably, THE most classic example of this is the word “liberal”.  Traditionally, it’s an adjective.  Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin liberalis suitable for a freeman, generous, from liber  free; perhaps akin to Old English lēodan to grow, Greek eleutheros free.  Synonyms include: generous, bountiful, munificent, openhanded, and broad-minded.  (Courtesy of Merriam-Webster Online)  All pretty positive, no matter how you look at it, right?

But, when someone repeatedly and continuously says the word with an audible sneer in their voice it soon takes on a totally different meaning.  Many people are very suggestible.  When they hear a word constantly being used, with such disdain, they eventually associate it with something bad.  These pseudo-wordsmiths will even drag out the word, for added affect.  “Llliberal!!!”  It’s like you’re calling someone a criminal, or a leper, or some other kind of person to be avoided.  It’s actually pretty comical, except that it’s only too effective, as a kind of conditioning tactic.  It’s a very manipulative tool in training the suggestible.

But the latest abused word is “cling”.  You know, as in “they cling to guns and religion”.  Hillary Clinton was the first to try to demonize the word.  She wanted to make hay, and score some politcal points with working class whites (with limited education), by taking the line completely out of context.  But, she really went out of her way to stress the word “cling”.  As though “1 a: to hold together b: to adhere as if glued firmly c: to hold or hold on tightly or tenaciously 2 a: to have a strong emotional attachment or dependence” was a bad thing.  I think most of the people, being referred to in Obama’s speech, are actually proud to hold on tightly to guns and religion.

But, the way that Hillary stressed the word was to try to evoke “clingy”, which denotes more of an emotional dependence than a strong adherence.  So, when you take the line out of it’s context AND stress a word, in a misleading way, it makes what Obama said sound like an insult.  But, in reality what Obama was saying is that the federal government has let these people down, for so long, that they really don’t have a whole lot to hang on to.

If you haven’t heard the line in it’s proper context this what he actually said.   “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them.  And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  He was explaining the frustrations of the working class Americans, and how the government has let them down.  But the opportunistic wordsmiths saw an opportunity to exploit a few words (and a line) to their advantage, and to the speaker’s disadvantage.  And in doing so, actually exploit the very people that it’s referring to.

Hillary may have started this one, but John McCain – and his camp – are eagerly playing this up, to make Obama sound like an elitist who can’t relate to the working class.  You will be hearing this clinging remark repeatedly, leading up to the November election, because they’re pretty darn sure that enough people will be taken in by the way they have chosen to frame it.

These are just a couple examples of language abuse.  There are, and there will be, plenty more where these come from.  If we consider all the other types of abuse as criminal maybe we should consider those who – so flagrantly – abuse language as criminals.

Your Uncle Rave

 

 


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