Abraham Lincoln once said, “Say it so simply a child can understand.” And a hundred years later, Russell Baker asked, “Why do we like our words so fat but our women so skinny?”
Americans don’t believe in talking simply anymore. We even have different names for various kinds of unintelligible language.
A euphemism is a word or phrase used to avoid harsh or distasteful reality. There are all kinds of euphemisms for animal excrement. Dogs do their business, and cats use the litter box. On the farm, we find horse apples, sheep buttons and cow pies. And whenever I try to learn a toddler’s word for potty, there’s usually a puddle on the floor before we get the semantics worked out.
A euphemism becomes doublespeak when it’s used to deceive or mislead. Like in 1984 when the State Department decided to change the word “killing” to “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.” And according to the Pentagon, it was not an invasion of Grenada but a predawn, vertical excursion.
Inflated language is designed to make everyday things seem impressive; to give importance to people or things that aren’t normally considered important. At one time, there were grave diggers. They became undertakers, then funeral directors, and now, I’ve heard them called perpetual rest consultants.
Graves are no longer dug. Instead, they’re prepared by interment excavators. With inflated language, car mechanics become automotive internists; elevator operators become members of the vertical transportation corps; used cars are not just pre-owned but experienced cars.
Politically correct language is just as frustrating. The latest casualty to fall to political correctness is the dictionary itself.
The recent edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has entries such as womyn (the alternative spelling to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequence m-e-n) and herstory (the history of womyn, of course).
And the female majority on the Sacramento City Council is working with the Public Works Department to come up with a synonym for manhole. Under consideration is person-access chamber. Some have lamented that if political correctness is carried too far, we’ll be calling the mailman a person-person.
As if all this weren’t enough, there’s also slang. Slang is a basic principle of language. You use it as a means of identifying with those closest to you. Each new generation creates its own slang.
Would you rather be called stupid or ripe? Nowadays stupid means cool, but ripe is an insult. It means you smell. And why is it a compliment to call a thin person phat? Well, because phat means fine. But watch out men. Don’t call a woman phat or fine. That’s politically incorrect.
So much to learn. So many changes to keep up with. I’d better get back to my dictionary. Catch you later, humankind.
Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.