Editor’s Note: This article was written in May 2003 as an attempt to apply my English teacher background and interest in words to current events. I’ve always enjoyed William Safire’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and one of my favorite stand-up comics is George Carlin, who’s done some great routines about words, their use and abuse. The “Stamford company” I refer to had been in the news quite a bit at the time and was a place I'd been employed at briefly in the mid-1990s. It was also, by far, the worst job I ever had, and the owners were the worst people I’ve ever met. However, I’d deliberately left their name out of the article, because I was afraid I’d find a cobra in my mailbox or cyanide in my beer. Unfortunately, the newspaper added the name of the company back in, so I guess I should consider myself lucky to be alive.
Cheapening the Language
Fascist, diva, liberal … use a word indiscriminately and often enough, and it will begin to lose its meaning. This is especially true in wartime.
Take the word “war” itself. With two of the world’s nastiest countries conquered, and others likely to follow, the term “war on terrorism” is apt. However, this phraseology has been diluted by decades of adulteration — from the “war on illiteracy” to the “war on illegitimacy” to the endless, pointless and fruitless “war on drugs.”
Meanwhile, the word “terrorism” has been cheapened by a Stamford (Connecticut) company that illegally sold equipment used in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Despite its admission of guilt, the company smeared the whistleblower who’d alerted prosecutors, calling him a “terrorist,” as if he’d declared jihad against the company’s “decent, hard-working, patriotic employees.”
Is the business world really that hazardous? I recently edited an article about the “coming crisis in IT platform compatibility.” The Berlin blockade, which nearly brought on World War III, was a “crisis,” and, with nuclear war in the balance, the Cuban missile crisis certainly deserved the name. But the prospect of computer users having difficulty integrating their databases seems somewhat less than catastrophic.
Language of this sort is often used in the corporate world by self-important middle managers who stride from their offices to answer the question, “How go the wars?” by blustering that they’d spent the morning “putting out fires.” I was under the impression that fires were extinguished by men with hoses and axes, so I’m guessing this particular fireman might’ve unjammed the fax machine, fired an administrator or settled a heated argument between two actuaries.
Our forefathers once battled bears to protect the homes they’d hewn the logs for. Now we find long hours of sitting on our prostates occasionally interrupted by the need to change the toner cartridge in the Epson or battle a fellow cubicle dweller for the last cup of French roast at the Mr. Coffee station. So it’s no surprise we shamelessly inflate our adventures.
To witness the evisceration of a word like “courage,” just watch the Academy Awards. One actor after another is lauded for his “bravery” for making millions to star in a movie. I’m waiting for the night a makeup artist accepts a medal for her courageous eyelining. No wonder Hollywood needs to hold an awards show every other week.
A similar fate has befallen the word “genius.” Any celebrity worthy of perching on Jay Leno’s couch stands a good chance of being called a “genius” by another Einstein farther down the sofa. If everyone from Eminem to Martha Stewart is a genius, what word describes Shakespeare or Beethoven? I once heard Christie Brinkley referred to as “a true Renaissance woman” for her achievements as “model, actress, wife and mother.” Da Vinci would have been amused.
When every professional athlete collecting a paycheck is labeled a “star,” anyone who performs reasonably well soon becomes a “superstar.” With both words already used up, Sports Illustrated once captioned a cover story on Reggie Jackson “Superduperstar.” And this for a player who batted only .262 lifetime. What word remains for Ted Williams or Babe Ruth … “superhero”?
And we must be living in mythic times when there are so many “heroes.” I don’t think it demeans the casualties of Sept. 11 to ask at what point the words “victim” and “hero” became synonymous. The police officers and firemen who rushed into the Twin Towers to rescue trapped survivors were heroes, but the trapped stockbrokers at Cantor Fitzgerald were unfortunate victims. If “hero” is inaccurately used up to describe office workers killed while merely doing their jobs, what word can be applied to the passengers on Flight 93 who sacrificed their lives to attack their hijackers on 9/11?
Left-wing activists have chronically overused the word “genocide,” cheapening the memory of those who’ve died in such events. The Holocaust was genocide and the African slave trade was genocide, but to call opposition to affirmative action “genocidal,” as Al Sharpton has done, is absurd and offensive. If all the genocide talked about by civil rights activists had actually happened, there’d be no minorities left to complain about it. And those community activists who called Mayor Guiliani a “Nazi” for instituting tough anticrime measures should also have chosen their words more carefully.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Rush Limbaugh coined the word “feminazi” to vilify women’s rights advocates. And the rhetoric of the conservative televangelists and “prayer warriors” has become so overblown that terms like “crusade” are routinely applied to what Patrick Buchanan characterizes as “the culture war” against liberals and other godless evildoers.
This exaggerated language is now so pervasive in the Religious Right, that its leader, President Bush [accidentally, one hopes] roiled the Islamic world by referring to the war on terror as a “crusade.” Of course, the Muslims are no less guilty — the most trivial slights against Islam result in calls for “jihad,” and every president since the saintly Jimmy Carter has been dubbed “The Great Satan.”
No, George W. Bush is not The Great Satan, nor is Bill Clinton “The Antichrist” … although I’m still a bit frightened by Dick Cheney.
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