Editor’s note: Following an exhausting holiday weekend, John Rice is taking the week off. Please enjoy this column from Nov. 3, 2004.
The Forest Park Public Library has a book I find absolutely fascinating. It’s called “The Adventure of English.” Talk about a page-turner. I’ve learned so much about our plucky language–I already learned that the word “alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek language–and I’m only on page 25.
I had just finished reading 295 pages on a related subject, the decline of the English language. Comedian George Carlin puts this thesis forth in his newest book. Some people dismiss Carlin as being a crude comic. I admire him as a word scientist. Carlin believes we’re killing our language by incorporating political correctness. In other words, our language is losing its meaning because we’re softening negative concepts and making the ordinary seem important.
Before I start borrowing Carlin’s examples I’ll give you one of my own. A “diva” used to be a classically trained singer who could hit all the notes in an aria. Now, it’s watered down to describe miked-up pop stars that sometimes are only pretending to sing.
To give more examples of how we are hiding truth with our words, Carlin mentions how the phrase “crow’s feet” was replaced by “laugh lines.” Pimples turned into blemishes, jungles became rain forests and free was replaced by complimentary. Before you accuse me of stealing all of Carlin’s ideas here, first remember that they’re now called concepts.
Some of these new concepts in word usage are having a negative impact on our society. For instance, when we downgraded “shell-shocked” soldiers to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, some veterans didn’t receive the care they needed. After all, their painful condition had been buried under a mound of jargon and hyphens.
The “positivation” of our language, to use a nonexistent word, never seems to end. Garbage dumps have become landfills. It’s unfortunate that these leaking landfills are poisoning the groundwater, but at least they’re not dumps.
Look at how we tiptoe around people with disabilities. There’s no such thing as a slow student anymore: the child simply has an alphabet soup “disorder.” In a recent Second City skit, anxious parents ask the teacher if their kid as A.D.D. “No,” the teacher replies. “He’s D.U.M.B.”
Right now, Forest Park is suffering from something that sounds like a good thing: “gentrification.” It used to have an uglier name: “urban renewal.” But either way, “development is only a polite term for “overcrowding.”