One of the articles of faith for the growing hordes of the extreme right is the destruction of language as an initiation into the gang. Examples include “Democrat party,” instead of Democratic party, “Stop the Steal,” instead of stop the theft, and “China virus,” instead of Covid-19.
This group’s dedication to wrongness reminds me of nothing so much as the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) in CS Lewis’s novel “That Hideous Strength.”
This garbage grammar is a parallel trend to trash words, driven by neo-fascists and their collaborators, but also by uncritical press that is too quick to coin terms, such as “Asian hate,” the opposite of the intended anti-Asian hate and “shelter in place,” a term that is used for an active shooter situation, for quarantine.
Business communications are a common font of garbage grammar. The latest was one directed at an acquaintance, and which read, “We have not solutioned yet.” It means, obviously, nothing.
To secure widespread usage, garbage grammar, regardless of type, relies on uncritical acceptance. And that’s an epic fail.
My homie is on fleek, bae! — Curt Hopkins
Throughout the long history of white people stealing black slang, a black idiom has rarely sounded hep in a white voice. Instead, it comes off as a kind of linguistic theft, a “stolen glory” attempt to shoplift the power of the original language, power that derives from the language’s environment.
But as fake and presumptuous as the intranational theft of slang may sound, it arguably sounds even stupider when people steal the idioms of another country. It has become embarrassingly common, for instance, for Americans to use English slang.
Again, such linguistic larceny is powered by the desire for others to mistake an affectation for style. The obviousness makes the user seem oblivious. When it comes to the theft of British slang, that desire is one of seeming exotic and sophisticated.
But in America, there are no “gingers,” a term with connotations of alienness. We have “redheads,” a word that connotes fieriness.
No one gets “jabs,” they get “shots.” There are no “lifts,” “bonnets,” or “lorries,” there are “elevators,” “hoods,” and “trucks.” There are no “flannels,” there are washcloths. There are no “tins,” there are “cans,” and you do not “bin” anything, you “shitcan” it.
Whenever you use language that evokes associations foreign to your culture, you run the risk of producing more noise than signal. The bulk of your listeners are possibly unfamiliar with the native connotations of a word or phrase of foreign origin. Whichever connotations they do have may obscure the meaning, not enhance it. And the user, of course, comes off a regular tit, hungry for the regard they believe such language will lend them.
Language as prestige
Several times I’ve mentioned a concept that running through most of the negative language choices I’ve outlined here: language as signifier. Here language is used without any concern for denotative meaning. It is employed for the same reason that an overleveraged member of the middle class might buy a Tesla instead of a Hyundai: as an aspirational symbol of social exclusivity.
To paraphrase Kyle Smith, in his essay on the Italian playwright Pirandello, “An underreported aspect of modernism, and later postmodernism, was the seductive appeal of this species of flattery, the turn towards codes and signs designed to make viewers feel like sophisticated insiders — if, of course, they grasped (or merely pretended to grasp) the working of the [language].”
This grasping at the prestige a user believes such language will lend him is, again, an uncritical adoption of language, one which will reduce the speaker’s long term expressive power. This is a trade-off that damages not just the speaker’s idiolect, but the language of the community as a whole.
In an era in which far too many mistake opinions for facts, in which their leaders purposefully mislead, making investment in mistruths a rite of passage for their mystery cult, language is bound to wind up neglected or even mutilated.
But blind adherence to the “rules” of language can be troublesome. After all, the same people who appear to have made the rules governing language made the rules for what skin color is superior and what type of love is perverse. To be suspicious of rules is a mentally healthy habit.
However, to pretend that one choice is as good as another partakes of the same meaningless relativity as those whose edicts you’re resisting. You have to analyze everything yourself but that analysis must include you, yourself, and the language you use to express yourself.
What I have suggested above are not “rules” for how to speak “correctly.” (There are few things I enjoy as much as cursing, for example, and cursing is very much against the rules.) What I have suggested instead is a touchstone for meaning in a time of linguistic change. Is what you thought was an innovation merely a fad you’re following? Does a given change enable your language to flourish? Does it allow you to express more or does it shrink the number of concepts available to you?
That last question is key. Does the way I choose to speak increase my expressive power or does it strangle it? All I’m asking you to do is to think before you speak.
Glossary of Hatred
Since I’m quite sure this will never end. Here’s where I’ll stack up the new linguistic analogies to people not flushing the toilet in a public restroom.
- Price point for price
- Self-isolate for isolate (the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a lot of linguistic idiocy)
- Threepeat (Jesus, seriously?)
- Umami instead of savory
- Controversy for an equally-weighted disagreement, instead of a meritless assertion, i.e., “the vaccine controversy” or “the Shakespeare authorship controversy”