The Last Word

The United States House of Representatives voted 398 to 1, with 36 congressmen unable to find their way to the chamber, to eliminate a word.  The single nay vote came not from disagreement in substance, but focus.

The lone “no” vote was cast by Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, who said in a statement that “not only should we not eliminate the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.”

Yes, the word “lunatic” has been stricken from the laws of the United States of America, the Senate having approved the measure last May. No longer is anyone in America a federal lunatic. Your state may vary.

This comes on the heels of the eradication of the phrase “mental retardation,” eliminated two years ago because of its hurtful connotation, where school boys called each other “retard” and neo-conservative media personalities figured out the if you replaced “re” with “lib,” they could get a belly laugh out of their followers.  At the same time,  58% of Republicans believe that man was created by God less than 10,000 years ago, when they walked the earth alongside dinosaurs.

Given the meaning and derivation of the word “lunatic,” that people would suffer transitory insanity based on movement of the moon, it’s just as well that it’s gone. But the meaning of mental retardation, that a person’s intelligence, based upon IQ, was below a score of 70, is more of a problem. A medical phrase was eliminated because it was abused by jerks and turned into an epithet. When this happened, there were two options. The first was to speak out and return it to its original meaning. The second was to make it disappear.  The first required people to think. The second did not.  The second prevailed.

A while back, there was a huge dispute, a very angry dispute, about the word “niggardly.” On the one hand, reasonably well-educated folks understood its meaning to be “cheap” or “miserly.”  On the other, it was just too damn close to a hated word to ignore. David Howard, D.C.’s head of the Office of Public Advocate, was forced to resign for using this “racist” word, not because it was racist but because people felt it was. It had no connection whatsoever with the racial slur, but so what? It’s gone.

As lawyer and blawger, I use a lot of words. They are useful to convey the correct meaning whenever possible, in the hope that readers or listeners will get the message that I am trying to send. Each day, it gets more difficult to accomplish.

Political correctness has caused us to eliminate words from our lexicon that hurt people’s feelings or have taken on disparaging meanings or connotations. In the process of eradicating “hate speech” from the language, we ignore definitions in favor of how words make us feel. But it hasn’t stopped at the edge of hurtfulness. It’s dribbled over to positive characterizations, empowering people to ascribe attributes and credibility to themselves at will.

In a recent exchange, a marketer argued his “belief” about why he was a professional.  His argument was that he felt entitled to do so, and at no time did a definition of the word come into play. 

There have been similar arguments about one of our favorite words, “justice,” a word of such vague meaning that we can all embrace it, own it, define it to support whatever we believe.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carrol (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

We cannot communicate with each other if each of us is a Humpty Dumpty to ourselves. The problem is not solved by the elimination of words because they cause some people to feel badly, especially when the feeling bears no actual connection to the word. As we eliminate hurtful words, a new word will be adapted to its use, as we still need words to denigrate each other. Then that word will be eradicated from the lexicon as well. 

Some people think that we can achieve an Orwellian Utopia by only having happy, supportive words, and thereby end that branch of language that can be used to hurt people’s feelings or express ideas that some believe should never be expressed. My guess is that will never happen, even if you think it’s a good idea.

What may well happen in the process, however, is that the sharp edges of definition will be dulled and rounded, so that the precision of words gives way to an amorphous mass of nice-sounding utterances that are interpreted by each of us in whatever way suits our desires and beliefs.  We will be able to talk among ourselves and agree or disagree without every having the slightest clue if we are talking about the same thing or making any headway in explaining our position.

There doesn’t appear to be any harm in the elimination of the word “lunatic” from the United States Code. It was probably a poor choice of words in the first place, reflective of common usage rather than definition.  If it were up to me, however, the word “justice” would also be on the chopping block, as it’s one of the most hurtful words around to the wrongly convicted. 

Yes, you know exactly what justice means.  You and Humpty Dumpty.  You lunatic.

4 comments on “The Last Word

  1. John Neff

    I wonder how Humpty Dumpty would answer the following questions about justice systems.
    Are they;
    1. Fair?
    2. Effective?
    3. Tolerant of racist outcomes?
    4. Tolerant of abuse of power?
    5. Corrupt?

  2. Nigel Declan

    One of the biggest shames that I have noticed is the push by some to neuter the language, taking perfectly straightforward terms like waitress and stewardess, which denote both function and gender, and demanding that less eloquent and less accurate terms like server and flight attendant be used in their stead, as though acknowledging someone’s gender and profession were offensive. What further aggravates the situation is that many of those pushing for such changes are not members of the representative group, but crusaders who believe it their mission in life to right what they perceive to be wrongs, actively looking for menacing beasts where the rest of us perceive mere windmills, notwithstanding the fact that the allegedly aggrieved may perceive no offense and find such changes to be language-inhibiting rather than language-enhancing.

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