I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately; useful if you’re a writer paid by the word. Words count. Every one of them. That’s why we charge you for each.
That’s why, when I watched this opening passage from an episode of The West Wing this morning, this exchange really tickled me. They’re talking about a pianist set to play a concert in the White House.
LEO: He’s North Korean, God knows how he managed to even learn. Their music’s all hymns to the barley harvest, not that they ever have one.
C.J.: To busy reprocessing plutonium to feed anybody.
LEO: Why they’re a rogue state.
C.J.: “Rogue” state… makes them sound bravishly charming. Should be “thug” state; “psycho” state.
LEO: We’ll ask the UN to re-designate.
C.J.: Punk state — that’s what they are, a bunch of punks.
LEO: Bunch of punks, with what could be six nuclear warheads.
(west wing transcripts: here)
There’s a lot of weight behind them there adjectives. Each one changes the matter drastically.
As far as North Korea and the adjectives go, the “rogue” is the Count of Monte Cristo. I don’t mind him, a namby-pamby guy, not scary.
The “thug” conjures images of 50 Cent. Not a fan, he smacks of “itchy trigger finger.”
Then, with “psycho,” it’s Norman Bates; translation: “don’t ask for pillow service.”
Finally, you have “punk” Sid Vicious, which I guess makes South Korea their ‘Nancy.’ (Which takes on still more interpretations when you consider the British slang of “nancy.”)
The last three dudes: Ixnay the ombbay, eh?
Exactly who I don’t want to have a finger on The Button.
Speaking of people I don’t want with a finger on The Button: For anyone thinking cultural terms are as interchangeable as Lego blocks, I give you Sarah Palin. The Alaskan village idiot’s speechwriter sure got a lesson in that one when Sarah Palin made her ridiculous hyperbolic claims of “blood libel,” regarding the “target poster: let’s-get-Palin” fall-out after the Arizona shootings.
It’s just another Tea Party attempt to paint her in a Messianic light, but it’s also a cruel insult to Jews, who’ve had century after century of persecution, of which this term speaks, when it’s someone as privileged and plain-Jane white as Palin claiming that brand of persecution. And she’s being persecuted only for her own choice to employ irresponsible rhetoric, too!
Then there’s the recent oh-so-asinine choice to willy-nilly swap out “nigger” for “slave” in Mark Twain’s lamentable “New South” edition of the classic Huck Finn. Like my friend says, such a context-lacking blanket noun switch is completely irresponsible. It ascertains that all slaves are niggers, and therefore all niggers are slaves. Hello?
Word choice is critical. Language is powerful.
Sadly, in an age where everything moves at the speed of light, people take too little responsibility for things said anymore — or too much. Either flippancy precedes everything and words zing across social networks with zero regard for their permanence, or else people are so terrified of permanence that they add very little of any consequence to the dialogue, or they magnify the least relevant detail because of perceived slights in the language.
I realise much of what I’ve said in the past few years can, and likely will, come back to haunt me, but considering the truth in what I try to say, and the standards I hold for myself, I can’t say I have a lot of regrets for putting my truth out there in as choice of terms as I have.
Do I wish I perhaps took the paid-by-the-word attitude of precision when choosing those words? Well, sure, that might cover my ass a little more, but it is what it is.
Sometimes we have to take a bigger-picture look at language. Instead of microanalysing every little word, take the whole of it together. It’s often akin to a symphony. A piano can do wonderfully on its own, but really has so much more to give when played against, and with, other instruments. So too with any word you offer; they play importantly both ways — solo and ensemble. I like how mine play, either way.
But with so little regard paid to much of what we say these days, I’m afraid that, both ways, we’re often largely at a loss.
When it comes to language, think of words as your tools. Not just any screwdriver will tighten that couch leg when it wobbles, so why are we so given to such casual word choice?
Think. Choose. And then mean what you say.
Maybe then our conversations will offer more of consequence, more to be gained.