Thursday, November 15, 2007

Murdering the language

The purpose of language is to communicate. That would seem to be a no-brainer. But like Newspeak in the novel 1984, language is also used to obfuscate or head off “undesirable” thoughts. Witness for example the many terms that have been used to designate African-Americans: In the 50’s it was “Negro”. Starting in the 60’s we went through “Black”, “Afro-American” and “African-American”. Rumor has it that the government changed the term used to designate African Americans every time they suspected people were “catching on” to the meaning of the term.

“Native American,” used to refer to American Indians is another attempt to obfuscate. “Native” means “born here”. If you were born in America, you are a native American. The correct term for American Indians is “aborigine”. Perhaps, though, the arbiters of language can’t bear to use a word that conveys the image of “primitive people”. Why not just refer to them as Indians, or better yet, refer to them by their tribe? Many Indians have no objection whatever to being referred to as Indians, and none will object to being referred to as Chippewa, Sioux, etc. (so long as you get it right). On a recent visit to Plimoth Plantation I encountered the term “native peoples”. That doesn’t grate like “native American.”

Why is there a proliferation of “hyphenated American” terms: Italian-American, Irish-American, Vietnamese-American? An American is an individual who is an American Citizen, by birth or by naturalization. The hyphenated terms might be useful for first generation immigrants, but when they are applied to people whose families have lived in America for generations, all they succeed in doing is dividing us into separate ethnic groups.

What on earth is “reverse discrimination”? Logically it should mean “the opposite of discrimination” – a very desirable goal for any society to strive for. A dictionary definition however, is

Discrimination against members of a dominant or majority group, especially when resulting from policies established to correct discrimination against members of a minority or disadvantaged group

In other words, in our society discrimination against whites would be reverse discrimination. No wonder kids grow up confused, with poor language skills.

Still another abomination of language is the use of made-up words. GM got itself in trouble a few years ago by shortening “Berlinetta” to “Beretta”. Unfortunately, as any James Bond fan knows, there is a real Company with that name, and they sued GM. A few years later GM named a van “Savana”. How many kids will misspell “Savanna” as “Savana” because their father bought a Savana? One of my favorites is “Cingular”. Why does a company name have to look like a misspelled word? Fortunately for the language,
“Cingular” was replaced by “AT&T” now that AT&T owns BellSouth.

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