Our Dangerous War of Words

By Susan Kuebler

On Saturday, the Twitter world had a great time making fun of a misspelled word in one of Donald Trump’s tweets.  While everyone was laughing at how he misspelled the word “unprecedented.” they missed the importance of that tweet.  The man who most likely will be the next President of the United States was directly intervening in foreign relations between our government (which he does not head yet) and another sovereign nation.  This was a blatant violation of the Logan Act

For a writer, words are the tools of the craft. They need to mean the same thing to the writer and the reader.  But if words lose their meaning, then they can mean anything.  Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of playing this game.  The Left insisted on calling every conservative candidate a “Nazi” so that when someone comes along who encourages every Nazi in the country, the impact of the word loses its force.  After the Right made the word “liberal” a derogatory term, their opponents simply adopted the term “progressive.”  Is it any wonder the public is confused about our candidates?

The PC culture is also partly to blame.  You shouldn’t call a person “handicapped” but physically challenged.  However, handicap is perfectly fine for golf and parking spaces. Deaf has now become “hearing impaired” and blind is “visually impaired.”  When did these words become defamatory?  Can you imagine a sentence that reads “He was hearing impaired to all their pleas” or “There are none so visually impaired as those who will not see?”  Granted, there are some words that became offensive to everyone through their usage.  Developmentally delayed is far preferable to “retarded.”  One of the beauties of the English language is its ability to grow and change through usage. But we need to remain on the same page.

Winston Churchill once said that “America and Britain are two peoples divided by a common language.”  This proved nearly catastrophically true during World War II.  American and British commanders were trying to agree on a military plan.  One side suggested that the plan be tabled.  For Americans, this meant the plan should be set aside.  For the British, the meaning was the exact opposite – that the plan should be brought to the table for discussion. Fortunately for the Allies, they were able to resolve this misunderstanding in time.

We are now entering an even more dangerous world of double speak. Take the term “fake news” for example.  What does this mean anyway?  If something is fake, it is not real.  Call it what it is.  Lies.  Propaganda.  Don’t dress it up by adding the word “news” to something that is definitely not news.  It should also not be used to describe information that does not agree with preconceived ideas.  Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it fake.  Many people fall prey to the concept of confirmation bias.  In other words, they only agree with news or ideas that reinforce what they already believe.  Anything else has to be fake.

There is also another, more subtle, way that writers can use words to influence their readers.  It is called “semantics” and the seminal work on this topic “Language in Thought and Action” written by S. I. Hayakawa should be required reading for any student of the English language. The deliberate choice of certain words can affect how information is imparted.  Notice the difference between the following two examples:

James reported that he had been robbed.
James claimed that he had been robbed.

While both sentences are essentially true, the first sentence carries far more credibility than the second.  This is exactly what was done to the Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald this week when some news organizations stated that Eichenwald “claimed” he had been sent a message that caused him to have a seizure.   This was not an inadvertent mistake.  This was a deliberate attempt to undermine his credibility.  Words are not just tools, they can also be used as weapons.

We are on the precipice of a new world of language.  With an incoming President who uses as his primary mode of communication a social media tool that limits him to 140 characters, it is critical to pay attention to the message. Trump definitely understands the primary role of every writer, which is to know your audience.  Trump knows his audience and if he writes at a fourth-grade level, it’s because that is the reading comprehension level of most of his followers.  Don’t let spelling and grammar mistakes distract you. They don’t bother the people who are reading his message.   The words, however, they might be spelled, are what are important.  Keep in mind that this is a man who is not going to dazzle you with his brilliance, but he sure as hell will baffle you with his bullshit.

One comment

  1. Wow–this was very good. People wonder why we care so much about spelling and punctuation, but it’s also the type of words we use and why we use them. We have to choose carefully, and sometimes that doesn’t happen…and sometimes it happens and slips under the radar. Great reminder to all of us out there in reader/writer land–it’s something I have a feeling I’m gonna have to pound into the heads of my students in a little while (hee hee).

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