Manipulating the Language

Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott

The best writers love a clever turn of phrase, wordplay, and language full of wit and wonder.  They avoid the easy cliché and search for just the right word or words to evoke powerful images and emotions.  But writers can also use stark and sparse language to trigger the imagination. Think Cormac McCarthy.  Sometimes it's the brutal honesty or the folksy wisdom of the common man that awakens us and grabs us by the throats.  Think poet Charles Bukowski and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.  But in the end, whether the writing is sparse or contains long descriptive sentences, it must ring true.  If not, then the language holds no meaning for us.  My main concern is that there are several common words or phrases that have been rendered meaningless by benign euphemisms or their meanings have changed radically over time.  While it is not my intention to engage in some sort of academic exercise in semantics or etymology, it is my intent to show that our common vernacular is being degraded to the point where true communication is difficult to accomplish. Even the word propaganda has lost its stigma.  U.S. intelligence services have recently described Chinese and Russian propaganda efforts as "information operations".

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio ad extolling the virtues of a car dealership.  Nothing unusual there.  What was unusual was the ending.  Please call or visit one of our "automotive relationship counselors", intoned the announcer.  I had never heard that term before.  Maybe this phrase was coined in a Beverly Hills Lexus, BMW, or Mercedes showroom. Perhaps there is someone on site who can help me have a relationship with a new or "preowned" (used) automobile. Date it, take it out to dinner, buy it a drink or some high-octane gas or super-duper battery pack.  Gently caress it.  It sounds so romantic, doesn't it?  But this wasn't some new age Beverly Hills dealership; it was a small-town Texas Ford dealership.  And from what I've been able to find out, "automotive relationship counselors" have replaced "sales associates".  But automotive relationship counselor sounds so sexy, doesn't it?  And it looks better on a business card.  Radio does seem to be the last refuge for inventive phrase turners.  Another recent ad informed me that an accounting firm would not address their employees as certified public accountants but as "tax reduction strategists". Whatever.

"Person of interest" is a term that is increasingly utilized by law enforcement officials and certain media types.  The term however has no legal standing.  "Suspect", a word that has served us well over the years has given way to this ambiguous construct.  Used primarily in high profile terrorism or murder cases, the term will eventually be used to describe common thugs and petty criminals.  The guy caught on surveillance video holding a knife to your throat, demanding your wallet, watch, and other valuables is not the suspect. He is a person of interest. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it must be a duck, right?  Nope, not a duck, not a suspect but none other than a person of interest. Hey Joe, let's take our suspect…I mean person of interest downtown and interrogate…I mean quiz him about the incident (crime) that occurred yesterday.  Sounds like a kinder, gentler, law enforcement and a kinder, gentler criminal.  We can keep talking in euphemisms until we almost believe it.  Perhaps a quote from acerbic TV judge Judith Sheindlin sums it up best, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining".  But the most important thing to keep in mind is that all persons of interest are presumed innocent until convicted in a court of law…or convicted in the court of public opinion.

While some inventive language is only plain silly, some of the newer coined phrases are troubling.  For example, those suffering with the dreaded disease of Alzheimer's don't inhabit Alzheimer's facilities but have been placed in "memory care" institutions.  With no cure in site, these institutions have proliferated across the country.  It seems the very word "Alzheimer's" is so dreaded that we dare not speak it or put it up on a sign or building.  As someone who has had a parent stricken with the disease, I believe the full impact and import of the infirmity cannot be lessened by a simple name change.  Memory care insinuates that there is a memory to be cared for. Again, without a cure it's not the mind but the body that needs to be comforted.  At this stage, we're well beyond helping Uncle Fred find his car keys.

"Life Coach" is not just a term but a burgeoning profession.  A life coach encompasses so many facets of getting a young person through the day – spiritually, physically, financially, emotionally that…well wait a minute.  I thought parents used to do that.  I thought priests, ministers, and rabbis used to do that.  I thought teachers and counselors used to do that.  It takes a village to raise a child, right?  Oh no, these days just hire a life coach.  They will provide your child with the care, comfort, and tough love that you are unwilling or unable to provide.

Even figures of speech such as "I'll give you one hundred percent" which have been clearly defined and understood in the past have unfortunately proven to be woefully inadequate as a means of communication.  When one said they would give you one hundred percent it was generally understood that that person would give you their all.  All their efforts, focus, and drive – the sum of their being.  Then some wise ass perhaps on the football field got the idea that they should give one hundred and ten percent.  Then in a bit of braggadocio, the 110 jumped to 120, then 200, and then escalated to an astronomical 1000 percent.  So, then it seemed that the person offering only a hundred percent was holding back something even though that person was just as dedicated as the 1000 percenter. And for you people only offering a woeful 90-95%?  Drop down and give me ten or is that twenty?

It all sounds just a little bit phony and hollow, doesn't it?  And that's my point precisely.

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Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.  For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2021 Les Marcott
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