Language Pollution



Oh, wait. Better make that RENDER ASSISTANCE!

Our language has been polluted by people who use words to mislead, appease, impress, gloss over, or just feel good instead of to inform or clarify.

America’s unwholesome love affair with polysyllabification (using lots of syllables) started with the ivy-covered philosophers who ruined public education in the 1960’s. It gained big-time traction when their disciples began trotting out such idiotic terms as differently abled for handicapped and developmentally disadvantaged for mentally retarded.

Liberals are always on the lookout for longer terms to replace perfectly good and widely understood words that aren’t warm and fuzzy enough for them or don’t sound sufficiently high-falutin’ to fit their own self-image. That’s not to say that conservatives are less likely to know words of more than one or two syllables. But they have other, more effective ways of obscuring what they really mean, which they use to great effect in recruiting and retaining the less intellectually adroit segment of their fan base.

It’s no surprise that “educators” are suckers for polysyllabic euphemisms, since they’re required to teach their students that feeling good is a higher priority than knowing stuff. But it’s weird that broadcasters share this fetish, since so many of them have so much trouble saying most of the simpler words they already use.

But it has come to pass that people without homes are said to be experiencing homelessness. So what’s next? Families whose homes are flooded experiencing inundation? Murder victims experiencing end-of-life events?

The feel-gooders feel better and the broadcasters apparently feel more dignified saying experiencing homelessness instead of homeless, but they’re downplaying the severity of the crisis (or the experience) by making it sound like a college student’s research project. Why not just call homeless people residentially disadvantaged so we can completely ignore that icky reality of people with no place to live?

The Language Nazis have made up some bizarre myths to justify their efforts to ban the use of certain words, but their excuse for trying to exorcise handicapped takes the cake — or should we say experiences the acquisition of the baked goods?

They claim that handicap comes from cap in hand, an old-time term for begging: a poor man might hold out his cap so other people could drop coins into it. Actually, cap in hand more often meant subservient: lower-class men were expected to remove their caps in the presence of the upper classes, especially if they were approaching their “betters” to request a favor.

But none of that has anything to do with the word handicap, which comes from an equally old-time but totally different term.

Sporting contests were often invented on the spur of the moment. It might be a race from the pub to Elmer’s barn, a challenge to lift the most bricks, or even such a “hold my beer” event as tossing a hedgehog over one shoulder and into a rain barrel.

Interest was added by writing special conditions on slips of paper: left-handed, one arm tied behind the back, standing at various distances from the target, and so on. The slips were drawn from someone’s cap, which gave us the term hand in cap, which survives today as handicap. In sports, it now means a calculation to reduce rather than expand the disparity among competitors, and in general use it means less than the ordinary ability to do something.

Government and the public relations “profession” are not immune to the lure of polysyllabification. Consider the signs on a fleet of state ferries that say Emergency Vessel Embarcation Station rather than Lifeboat Station or just Lifeboat. And consider the public address announcement heard on every ferry as it approaches the dock: Upon arrival at our destination, all passengers must disembark the vessel.

Embarcation and disembark mean nothing to most Americans who graduated from high school in the past 40 tears, and half of them wouldn’t know what a vessel is even when they’re riding on one. So imagine how foreign tourists must react to these signs and announcements.

Okay, you’re right: many foreign tourists know our language better than our own high school graduates do.

Nevertheless, America needs to eschew obfuscation (refrain from confusing others with the use of obscure or misleading words).


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2 Replies to “Language Pollution”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Oh, but it’s not just the world of education stirring the pot.

    I work in the “social services” sector, which is smothering in language pollution. It’s the art of saying many words without really saying anything definitive because no one wants to commit to an opinion, because they don’t want to “get in trouble”. It’s the world of “it’s all good” (a phrase I HATED the moment I heard it.) Oh yes and don’t ever say “hate” to indicate intense dislike, for example, “I hate having a migraine headache.” Instead say, “I’m happy when I have the absence of lack of wellness inside my head.” A kid isn’t acting up, having a tantrum, punching adults, pulling out other kids’ hair and beating his own head against the wall. Oh no. He’s “experiencing dysregulation”. I actually recently read the phrase, “He effected suicide”, meaning the person had committed suicide. Pretty effective.

    It’s bad enough that language has gotten so distorted and vague that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what some folks are saying. But I also HATE the flood of meaningless adjectives and made-up words to describe situations and events. Here are words and phrases that make my head hurt: intentionality / impactful / purposeful / making space for / mindfulness / huddle (not the football kind) / amazing (way overused). A Category 5 tornado is amazing. Mt. Everest is amazing. Baking a cake from a box mix is not amazing. Showing up for work on time is not amazing. Two year old kids are not amazing. They haven’t lived long enough to do anything amazing.


  2. Your piece on language pollution nearly touches genius, or, in simpler terms is real, real good. Especially since it’s REAL.

    Language is the basic building block of civilization and society. So, the main job of language is to be clear and easily understood. Over-engineering language results in a lack of clarity. Lack of clarity creates confusion, and even worse, mistrust. Confusion and mistrust then undermine, well, essentially EVERYTHING.

    And here we are, in 2020, with a country divided into not only different factions, but different FACTS.

    Scary times, indeed.

    Anyway, this piece should be printed in the New York Times and anywhere and everywhere else you might hope to find thinking people – or sentient carbon-based humanoid life forms.

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