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Archive for the 'Words in the News' Category

A Press Obsessed with ‘Addiction’

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Google alerted me this morning to a blog article entitled “Addiction: The Most Overused Word in our Language” by a Fox News commentator named Greg Gutfeld. Since word usage is one of my interests I looked it up to discover, well, not much. Gutfeld concludes that addictions are simply diseases easily cured by disposing of the focus of he addiction: throwing the offending computer out the window, throwing all the booze out the window, throwing all the drugs out the window, and so on.

The point should have been that the media has long used addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession. This leads to the more interesting question of why the US news media has developed its current passion emphasize the negative in all it reports, most of which are about as well thought through as Gutman’s blog.

An addiction is a physical dependency on some chemical: narcotics, alcohol, nicotine—all sinful within the Puritan code of ethic. The pejorativity of this term comes from this ethic, which has inevitably worked its way into the laws of the land. Alcohol and smoking is controlled, narcotics are mostly illegal. This is because addictions do measurable physical and psychological damage to the addict.

An obsession, on the other hand, is an emotional dependency at worst, a passionate focus on one particular thing at best. We may become obsessed with the Web, a person, a job, items in a collection. You must be obsessed with your work to become a star: actors who devote themselves body and soul to acting, baseball players who can do nothing but play baseball, singers who obsessively sing night after night. Their obsessions clear their focus and make them better at their obsession than others who divide their time over a variety of interests.

Now, I’m obsessed with the Internet myself. I spend most of each day working on my website, arranging translations via the Internet, and creating glossaries and word lists from materials gathered on the Web. Like professional baseball players, singers, actors, I do it because I love it, because I am totally in awe of it—not because I am physically dependent on it. It does no physical or psychological harm to me that I am aware of and I have learned immensely from the community of logophiles around the world it connects me with.

Of course, I am also the last person on Earth who would disparage the use of metaphors (figurative usage). However, the reason we have a separate scientific vocabulary for lawyers, doctors, and researchers, a vocabulary of superprecise terms that are never used metaphorically, is that metaphor undermines objectivity like nothing else. Calling pig a pig is as objective as we can get but  calling a friend a pig metaphorically is about as subjective as we can get. Metaphor is everywhere in general speech, where it often leads to misunderstanding.

Using addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession, then, is simply one of the more subtler methods the US Press (among others) uses to skew public opinion toward fear and hatred. It is easily overlooked among the sledge-hammer methods we are more familiar with.

Superdelegates? (2nd edition)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

The US press is dredging up a word from the early 80s and using it in a new, suggestive sense in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers. Political leaders who attend the Democratic Convention with a single, uncommitted vote are now called superdelegates in the broadcast media. 

The implication of this term, raised first in the early 80s but seldom used since, is that these leaders have more power at a political convention than rank-and-file members of the party. Actually, a superdelegate is simply an elected official with one vote that is uncommitted prior to the convention—unless he or she has endorsed a candidate.

So why do we need this term this year (2008) and with a new, misleading sense?

The press has decided that it prefers Senator Obama for the Democratic Party nomination and, according to CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project, has been giving him consistently more positive coverage than Senator Clinton. Recently, all the networks began announcing that Senator Obama had, in fact, won the primary race and have been openly appealing to Senator Clinton to resign from the race, making the job of the press easier.

The last hurdle the press must overcome is the Democratic Convention in Denver this summer. How can the press be sure that party leaders do exercise their prerogative to choose Ms. Clinton as the party candidate? After all, neither candidate has enough delegates to win the nomination; the primary is a virtual tie.

Well, one tack would be to attach a new epithet which might intimidate party leaders in case they decide to make such a move. That word is superdelegate, now used in the media in ways suggesting it refers to someone who has more votes than he or she deserves. Look out for an increase in the usage of this aspersive term as the Convention convenes this summer.

Why does the press prefer Mr. Obama so passionately as to flagrantly attempt to undermine Senator Clinton? Former President Clinton visited Lewisburg recently and suggested that it was because his wife is old news and the Press wants someone new to write about. My guess would be that the press is tired of looking for skeletons in Ms. Clinton’s closet and have greater hopes of digging up something that would embarrass Mr. Obama. He is the greater unknown.

Mr. Clinton also thinks that his wife represents a demographic that the press doesn’t understand: people who struggle to pay for their mortgage, send their kids to college, and pay their medical bills. “People at the networks don’t have to worry about these things,” he opined, “They are of no concern to network producers.”

Whatever the reason, we have another lexical toxin with which to tarnish those brave enough to enter the US political process.

Edited, updated May 26, 2008

Guilt by Association

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I am surprised that this expression is not heard more in the news, aside from the rock group so named. It has become the sole basis of argument for the US news media this week in their attempt to create a scandal out of nothing and besmirch the character of Senator Barack Obama.

The lowest form of attack—as opposed to any form of argument or proof—is to accuse someone of a belief held by someone else they just happen to know. We should have learned this lesson from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s use of guilt by association in his attack on the First Amendment via the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 50s.

The purpose of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was to root out “Communists” from the US society. It succeeded in destroying the lives of thousands of decent Americans in that pursuit and its primary tool was guilt by association.

People lost their jobs and reputations, not because they were members of the Communist Party or ever had been, but because they were seen in the company of a member of that party at one time or other. Often they didn’t even know at the time that the associate in question was a member of the Party.  But if you stand beside a Communist, you must be one, right? That is guilt by association.

How absurd. It is just as absurd to conclude that because Senator Barack Obama attends the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that he must agree with everything the right Reverend utters. So why were Reverend Wright’s truthful if mildly provocative comments even repeated in the news? Why should Senator Obama feel compelled to respond to a scurrilous attack on his character from the US press, based solely on guilt by association?

To stoop to creating scandals using guilt by association lowers the press into the debilitating mire of Dark Ages. We can only hope that it will somehow retain the strength and light to eventually pull itself out of that mire.

Guilt by association is a phrase none of us should forget or misunderstand. The news this week was not the words of Reverend Wright, but the rearing of the ugly head of guilt by association, a news item no one heard about anywhere—save here.

Self-Catharsis and the Family Jewels

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

The Onion article in our “Language in the News Feature” about Mel Brooks trying to save the word schmuck reminded me of my first visit to Germany decades ago. I was stunned to see Schmuck on several stores in every town we visited. I could tell by the wares offered in these stores that the word meant “jewelry” in German. I immediately figured out that the meaning of this word in Yiddish came from the concept of “the family jewels”.

When we first entered Athens with a 7-year-old and 9-year-old in the back seat after 400-500 miles on the road, I was delighted to see autokatharsis (αυτοκάθαρσις) over the doors of many establishments. That was exactly what I needed after all those hours of frustration at thinking up funny answers to the questions, “Are we there yet” and “How much longer?” Actually, I wasn’t sure that it was self-catharsis that I needed; I actually felt that I needed help.

However, thanks to my knowledge of etymology (see, I told you it comes in handy), I soon figured that these establishments were car washes, not self-induced soul washes. Aristotle had passed and Greece was left with the original meaning of the word katharsis. (Αυτοκάθαρσις may have been a brand name since “carwash” seems to be πλυντήριο αυτοκινήτων in Greek today.) 

These are the sorts of incidents that convinced me that much if not most of the history of our thought lies within the very words we use. At least words tell us much about ourselves and how we think about things and have thought about them over the centuries.

Embedtime Stories

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Nighty night!One of the most dismaying concepts to arise from the US occupation of Iraq is the concept of “embedding” the press in the military. The concept involves flipping a metaphorical bird to the First Amendment for the sake of maintaining absolute control over the media. (Before you write: I don’t consider violations of the First Amendment a political issue; the First Amendment to the Constitution is supposed to be a settled issue.)

Today we hear so little about embedding, though, and questions do arise. For example, do you get free embedding and embedclothes with this job? What do the embedsteads look like? Are they militarily spartan or regal to lull the press into thinking it is respected.

Where do the embedtime stories coming out of Iraq originate? Are they read to reporters when they are tucked in every night or are reporters left on their own to organize boilerplate news releases into something more entertaining?

The first victim of war, of course, has always been the truth. I now forget who said that but we should all credit whomever put this fundamental truth into memorable words.

During the Vietnam War journalists were able to regain a hold on truth, a heroic effort that contributed in a major way to bringing that attempted occupation to an end. However, following that war, all the genuine journalists at CBS, ABC, and NBC and many of the newspapers were sacked and replaced by sweet, gentle, sleepy-eyed faces reading us embeddy-by stories from the front.

As a result we are stuck with news reporting in nightclothes from a press sound asleep in its embed.

Flipping out over ‘Flip-Flop’

Monday, October 1st, 2007

We heard a lot about flip-flopping during the last presidential campaign. I had hoped it had run its course but I’ve heard it a few times recently in the current pre-pre-preliminary campaign for the presidency of the United States so I feel I have to vent a little on the subject before I do ‘flip out’.

First, it is a child’s word, a rhyme compound like roly-poly, piggly-wiggly, willy-nilly, in a rhyme class with clip-clop and hip-hop. It isn’t a serious word; you don’t read it in scholarly journals.

Flip-flop is a pejorative term for “change your mind” or “reconsider”, something intelligent people often do when new or fresh information about an issue comes to their attention. The worse thing a leader, political or otherwise, can do is to remain adamant on a point despite the fact that new evidence indicates that his or her position is wrong. At least it is bad if the objective is taking the right postion on issues.

If someone in known to change their position for political reasons, then that fact should be drawn out and presented in detail. Changing one’s mind in general, however, is not a bad thing.

Flippety-flop, flippety-flopSo, using terms like flip-flop in a debate can be an admission that the target of the epithet is flexible in their thinking, that their thinking is based on best evidence and, as that evidence changes, so does the thinking of the flip-flopper. Flip-flop is a term of ridicule, to often used by debaters who have no argument or rebuttal. There is nothing wrong in flip-flopping if the evidence flip-flops—or if the flip-flopper’s thinking matures with experience.

So, let’s all keep in mind that flip-flopping is a pejorative term for mental flexibility, something those who used this word so extensively in the last presidential election do, in fact, seem to lack. Let’s hope that this word will be used in the future exclusively to refer to thongs of the feet such as those pictured above.

Linguistic Soy Sauce

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Soy beansNPR this morning had a piece on the cooperation of Greenpeace and the Cargill Corporation in attempting to slow the rate of deforestation in the Amazon basin. The major problem they are focusing on is land clearance for raising “soy”. I think I have heard this usage before but everyone interviewed on this show used it, making me acutely aware of the change for the first time.

What change? Well, if we say that we raise soy, we are categorizing soy beans as a grass or grain. We raise soy as we raise wheat, barley, or parsley. Soy, however, is a bean, a legume, which is why until rather recently why we referred to it as “soy beans”. Along the way, the two words were combined as a compound, soybean then, apparently, simplified to just soy.

I am not opposed to language change but I am uncomfortable, as I have said many times before, with linguistic inconsistency. So, unless we want to talk about raising lima, string, navy, black-eyed and snap, I think we should stick to calling soy beans soy beans.

Ever Wonder what a Wonder is?

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Pyramids or spacecraft?At 7:07.07 AM GMT today (7/7/07) the all New Seven Wonders of the World was announced in Lisbon.  The selection of the new seven wonders has been made democratically this time, by 20 million people with access to a computer and nothing more useful to do.  I think it is time to introduce the word wikiwonder because any list, dictionary, or encyclopedia written by people regardless of qualification, interest, or inclination is bound to be as unreliable as the Wikipedia. In fact, the top 20 New Seven Wonders of the World show even greater symptoms of wiki-itis than does the Wikipedia.

Clearly most voters are unclear about not only the meaning of the word wonder but the word new, as well! Among the leading contenders today (July 6) are the pyramids of Giza, the Roman coliseum, Machu Picchu,  Easter Island, and the Athenian Acropolis.  Even the Great Wall of China has seen better days. Now, I can stretch the meaning of new with the best of them but I cannot stretch it this far.  If these are new wonders, what are the wonders of the ancient world?

So, at least we are getting wonders right, right? Let’s examine a few. The Roman coliseum is in ruins. The same applies to Machu Picchu and the Acropolis. Easter Island is a collection of crude monoliths my 3-year-old granddaughter could draw, carved out of stone no one knows when by a people no one knows anything about. Wonders or a wikiwonders? How would you distinguish new wonders from ruined wonders?

Actually, the creators of this overhyped quest meant a new list of seven ANCIENT wonders? Well, that’s different, then, isn’t it?

OK, bigmouth, I hear you muttering; if we wanted a real list of new wonders, what would a real new wonder be? Well, not all wonders are architectural according to the dictionaries. The very fact that 20 million people from around the world can vote on one issue should suggest something wonderful involved in the voting itself.

What about the computer?  What about the World Wide Web? What are they—chopped liver? Have we already forgotten those spaceships that made it to the Moon, zipped around Mars and Jupiter? Or do we think Mickey Mouse with the help of Huey, Dewey, and Louie could have built them?

If you want architecture, shouldn’t Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao make the top 20? The Singapore Changi Airport came out of the largest single development project in world history. It is right up there with the pyrimids even adjusting for differences in technology. And so far my list has been guided by size; what if we considered beauty? Wouldn’t the collected works of Picasso or Dali qualify? Am I the only one in awe of Mozart and Beethoven?

Lists are fun if compiled intelligently by experts who give long, deep, and considered thought to the task. Lists flipped off the tops of skulls regardless of their content are inevitably silly. (Did I mention the problem of vote-rigging?)

The Warm and Fuzzy N-Word

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

An old and good friend, Sue Gold, Communications Manager at the Westtown School in Westtown, Pennsylvania, brought to my attention an article in the online Philadelphia Inquirer about a simulated burial of the word nigger staged by the students of the NAACP Philadelphia Youth Council last Saturday.

Americans like to take pills for their woes. It would be wonderful if there were a pill like the word nigger for American racism and all we had to do was to quit saying that word and racism would go away. I have already explained why that is not the case.

The N-word has, in fact, become a term of endearment among many younger African Americans, especially males. The new question is this: if the N-word is so horrible with such a terrible history, how can it become a term of endearment under any circumstances whatever?

It is an interesting sociological fact is that among men, profanity is often used in place of terms of endearment. A real man (who wouldn’t think of eating quiche), would never use such womanly terms of endearment as “you old dear”, “you sweetheart you”, and so forth; these terms are left to the swishy British upper class. If your neck is red and you have at least one deer rifle hanging across the rear window of your pickup truck, you greet your buddies with, “Well, how are you, you old SOB”, “you lucky b—–d”, or worse.

Now that these words have become acceptable among the younger generation and the new profanity is in place, we can predict that the new profanity will shortly provide the new terms of endearment for males who want to prove themselves men. Apparently, that changeover is already occurring.


Quality and Quantity

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Where chimps and pigs meetNPR ran a story on the survival of small shops in France despite the invasion of malls and monster stores like Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. The success of these small shops, according to those interviewed for this story, derives from the fact that small shop owners provide greater quality for which the French are willing to pay higher prices.

It occurred to me that the difference between quality and quantity might deserve a few words in this blog. We haven’t taken a turn at talking about chimpanzees yet but that research is aimed at the distinction between quality and quantity (the language connection).

Those who believe that chimpanzees and other pongids may have the capacity to speak in a language are arguing for a purely quantitative difference between humans and these species. That is to say, both humans and pongids share the same quality, the ability to speak, they only differ in the quantity of words and sentences they can produce.

Those of us who are convinced that humans are the only species with the ability to speak a language, are convinced that the difference between humans and other species is qualitative. That is, humans and pongids are radically different in that one species possesses an ability (quality) that the other does not possess at all.

The NPR program brought up another use of these two concepts. Quality also means “superiority of characteristics or features” and this was the definition Eleanor Beardsley (love that name!) in the NPR piece had in mind. Our European counterparts are far more willing than US citizens to pay extra for quality. We are more interested in quantity and the cheaper the goods the larger the quantity of them we can acquire.

The result is that more and more of us give up our small towns to giants like Walmart who offer low quality goods at low prices. My wife and I avoid them, for we are willing to pay 10-20% more for better quality (such as the absence of poison in our food), chatting with the store owners, and a pleasant stroll down town rather than through a gloomy warehouse the size of downtown. We consider the extra money we pay an investment in the survival of Lewisburg.  Many small towns have not.

We long ago noticed that the business districts in German cities are also surviving the onslaught of malls and super stores because their locations are restricted to the perimeter of the cities. I am sure it is a Europe-wide prejudice that motivates Europeans to fight these corporations by simply preferring quality. I just thought it interesting that the difference boils down to a preference of quality over quantity in the European and US societies.