The Geometry of Language

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Math has a certain concreteness that’s attractive. When you say 2+2=4, it’s a certainty to everyone except our Budgeteer-in-Chief who thinks 2+2=Eleventyseven. Language on the other hand is a tricky and fickle thing. It has nuance and subtlety, power and majesty, sometimes from the same words.

There’s a trick – often employed by advertisers, but equally beloved by politicians – that makes words say anything you want them to say. This trick is to replace negative language with something a little happier. Both sides of the abortion debate are good examples.

Anti-abortionists and right-to-lifers fashioned themselves into pro-lifers. Pro-abortion advocates became pro-choice advocates. Even though this happy talk put a nice spin on things, it didn’t change the debate one iota. Abortion is still a thing that almost everyone would just as soon avoid. The difference is in how strongly you want to limit the avoidances.

Or, take old-fashioned liberals who renamed themselves progressives. Progressive has a nice ring to it. After all, who could be against progress? The fact there are still liberal idiots and charlatans doesn’t count for much in this name change. Neither does the fact that progress isn’t always such a good thing.

Now you conservatives, wipe that shit-eating grin off your faces. This one’s for you.

You prefer conservative to right-wing flaming asshat, but you’re not conservatives in the sense people used to be conservatives. Conservatives used to be people who believed in low spending, small government, and as little intrusion into people’s lives as possible. Today, people who spend like drunken sailors, who want the government to fix everything (or at least what they consider to be broken), and want to legislate every moment of your personal life are conservative. They use the word Moonbat to describe liberals, er, progressives, but if you ask me, it fits them too.

Leave no child behind? Leave every child behind. Contract for America? Contract on America. Patriot? Traitor. Bold leader? Smirking monkey. Negro, colored, black, African-American? (Insert term du jour here). White, whiter, whitest? Aryan Brotherhood. Leak? Clarification.

All of this name changing has about the same effect as seeing signs that advertise, “Going Out of Business Sale” hanging in the store window for years on end. We all know that “Closed for Remodeling” really means we’ve gone belly-up and you won’t be seeing us here again.

So what’s the point of twisting words? Stupidity is still stupidity. Racism is still racism. Greed is still greed.

There’s a certain geometrical symmetry about that, don’t you agree?

10 thoughts on “The Geometry of Language

  1. it all comes down to spin really, or who can ‘wag the dog’ best.

    issues, facts, actual people have no place in this piece of verbal and written wordsmithery.

    its quite a country you have – I feel like I’ve been on a very fast and very loud sit-and-spin ever since we moved from Canada….

  2. El,
    We can always do with a little less ignorance, but I’m afraid that’s probably just the human condition.

  3. Hiromi is right that the conservatives won the language battle, mostly because they had so many just barely interrupted years (Carter was a blip) to make their message THE message. We only had eight years to try to take the language back, but we were so busy just defending our chosen President from daily attacks that our message ended up being more about him than about the party and the country. It’s really sad.

    But, like you said Poobah, what’s sadder is that all it would take to disarm them is a little less public ignorance, just a touch more than clicking through the nightly news on a commercial break.

  4. Rev,
    Exactly!

    Coyote,
    Damned hard to pick it out sometimes.

    Hiromi,
    You’re right that invests lots of power, but the funny thing is that if people really paid attention, it wojuldn’t make such a difference.

    Sumo,
    I actually thought that was one of his better lines, especially when he whined it like a little girl. “Wah! I’m the Decider and if you don’t agree I’mm gonna hold my breath until I’m blue!”

  5. The conservatives have done an absolutely brilliant job of dominating the vocabulary used in political discourse. Off the top of my head: Big Government, family values, Politically Correct, tax-and-spend, “special interests” (even thought the freaking American government was *built* upon them, and formerly value-neutral words such as patriotism and freedom.

    Controling the terms of the debate carries a great deal of power.

  6. could not agree more. like dave away has said you need labels, but too many are hiding behind liberal and conservative and in reality they are just posing. worse, few of them know it.

Give Us Some Choice Words