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Michael Bettencourt

On Exact Language

The current American political situation is now in full deconstructionist mode. Our power-mongers, as all power-mongers do, have bled the truth value out of language. With that accomplished, they can now bully the body politic as they please.

Orwell once said that in times like this, “the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men,” and the “re” in “restatement” means that it must be done again and again, like water against rock. Note that he does not say that the duty is to convince anyone of the obvious: people holding on to their savage idealisms will not be convinced to let them go. The only duty is to keep the obvious obvious, in play and a live option (to use William James’ notion in The Will to Believe).

This duty requires language that is Adamic, in that it names the thing or the action, the noun or the verb, as exactly as possible and as if it were being named for the first time. Lately I’ve been searching for English nouns and verbs that do just that, less to box them up as a lexicon than to remind myself just how powerful a toolbox the English language can be.

Just a few obvious ones:

    · Philtrum – the groove between your nose and upper lip

    · Aglet – the hard tip on a shoelace

    · Punt – the indentation on the bottom of a wine bottle

    · Lunule – the whitish crescent at the base of a fingernail

    · Tittle – the dot over an “i” or “j”.

    · Glabella – the smooth space between the eyebrows

    · Muntin – a strip separating panes of glass in a window sash

    · Lemniscate – the infinity symbol

    · Fourchette - the strip or shaped piece used for the sides of the fingers of a glove

I am sure Scene4 readers can come up with more examples of the exact names for the things in our lives, but the point of the exercise (beyond just the delight of discovering the terms) is to remind ourselves that when we restate the obvious, we can do so with precision.

In the 1980s HBO comedy show Not Necessarily the News, Rich Hall would have a segment on “sniglets,” which he defined as “any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should,” things like downpause (for when a car drives under a bridge during a rainstorm) and expresshole (for a person with more than 10 items in the express check-out lane).

What I always liked about sniglets was not just the inventiveness but also how the coinages refreshed our language, extending Adam’s impulse to invent new ways of thinking by creating new language to prompt that thinking.

Since our overlords have fogged up “the obvious” with charges of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we need a new approach to doing Orwell’s duty that means digging deeper in our word hoard and inventing what we need that we don’t find there. Even before 45 took office, our political vocabularies no longer mapped themselves onto the realities of most citizen’s lives; these days, they map onto nothing but tweet-whims and Bannon’s appetites. Let the “extreme vetting” of our language begin so that we can do our duty of resistance and bring down the current regime.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Visit his website at:
For more of his columns and articles,
check the Archives.

©2017 Michael Bettencourt
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt April 2016 |




April 2017

Volume 17 Issue 11

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