Monday, October 24, 2005

Word Tanking - When is it Time to Walk?

Recently I've been thinking about a cultural trend that seems to fly in the face of everything the Project stands for. We could call it word tanking: a term gains a slightly sordid association, and we toss it. It seems characteristic of our consumer culture that we prefer to discard "compromised" terms and invent new ones rather than reinvest old words with meaning. For me, one example of the phenomenon hits fairly close to home. In the words of Donald Miller:
In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn't do it, and moreover, that I didn't want to defend the term... I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity... To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won't do it... Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. - Blue Like Jazz

Undoubtedly, I've felt the same pull myself. On my primary blog, Spiritual Journey - BitterSweetLife, I tend to de-emphasize the word "Christianity." Instead, I employ phrases like "following Christ" and (rather obviously) "spiritual journey." It's often awkward to speak this way, but I find myself doing itusing ambiguous terms like "friend" and "follower" and "disciple" and "journey," and then qualifying them with the word "Jesus" or "Christ." In a very real sense, "Christianity" carries with it a host of connotations that I'd just as soon not deal with. I want people to think about what I'm saying, rather than be side-tracked by negative (and unrelated) associations.

Still, I find myself wondering if this is the best approach. Negative undertones should definitely be dealt with, especially when there are legitimate reasons for their presence. The problem is that it's very hard to defuse potential turn-offs every time you use a given word. If I could do it once, and be done with it, I'd be only too happy. But this is impossible, so the question must be asked:

When, if ever, does one abandon a tainted phrase and look for a replacement? Given enough provocation, is word tanking ok? Or should such a course of action be condemned on principle?

9 Comments:

Blogger Erin said...

I've been thinking on this post all day. I don't think I realized until I read this post just how many words I'd bailed on. There are a lot, in poetry anyway, that are considered cliche, those I avoid like the plague, consider them tanked. "Christianity" is another one I've tanked on, opting instead for "spirituality." I also dislike "religion" for the negative connotations it tends to bring to mind.

I think there will be times that, in order to convey what we're trying to say without getting misunderstood or having our message misconstrued, that we will be forced to avoid certain words.

Perhaps that's unfair to the english language, being unfaithful to our vocabularies, but I find it more important to be correctly understood than anything else. I don't want to get lost in a discussion on semantics and connotation, I want to make and discuss my point.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think it is important to remember that English is a living language. Words have an evolution of sorts. Some evolve to carry new meaning some simply fade from use seemingly without reason. This is a process that only ends when the language ceases to be used for everyday communication, and cannot be stopped. Languages exist first to woo women and second to communicate meaning. Using a word because you do not wish to abandon it or without respect to its evolving meaning accomplishes neither no matter what the meaning. Just try telling the current object of your affections that you "feel quite gay today" (in keeping with the previous meaning of the word gay: to be happy) and you will find she is neither wooed nor has understood your meaning. Similarly, those who feel “Christians” have injured them will neither be wooed nor properly communicated with by clinging to a term that is inappropriate to some discussions.

9:24 PM  
Blogger martin said...

I have written at length about this on my blog A few words- I conclude: In general, though, we have to face the fact that communication is communication, and it is our readers' verbal associations we must consider, not our own. This is the reason I would never say "I am a poet"; "I write poetry" is not just less of an extravagant claim, it also attempts to sidestep the opinion held by many that anyone making such a statement is bound to be sentimental, alcoholic, dying, or impractical.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Erin, Scott, Martin, you are shoring up my suspicions with solid reason. I was hoping to discover some kind of rationale for not abandoning outmoded words and phrases ("Christianity"), but I don't think one really exists. Otherwise we'd end up elevating words at the cost of language. Oh well.

Guess I'll just have to reconcile myself to being a dabbler in Christian spirituality who writes poetry.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Melissa said...

Unfortunately there is no longer a single word that *acurately* represents "Christ-centered spiritual journey" that doesn't also conjure up negative images. I recently read a passage from a book called "Velvet Elvis" which said (paraphrasing here) that terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity: the inquisition, the crusades and Christian cable television. The terms Christian (actually a noun and not an adjective) and Christianity have become synonymous with hypocrisy and kitsch. I don't know if the original meaning can ever be restored.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous momma2theMax said...

generally speaking i have abandoned the ise of the word "nice" but for far different reasons than you and the other commenters have noted. I have abandoned it becuase of it's original and "obsolete" meanings of both wanton or profligate and affectedly modest or coy. i dislike that a word which, now, means something far different had its beginnings in such "nastiness"....also i strive to teach my children that what i want from them is not "niceness" (which in our family has a cultural meaning of "to treat others as you expect to be treated") but kindness (which in our family has a meaning of "treating others Better than you expect to be treated"). Personally, i think that some words should be "tanked," as it were, to make way for something more precise. because isn't the point of language to be the vehicle of communication, and imho the quicker said the better.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

“imho the quicker said the better.”
- momma2theMax
I have to disagree on this solitary point. Today I read a description in a book, which spanned several pages. It is likely the same could have been communicated in far fewer words, but not with the same artistry. Concise communication has its place and is often neglected, but is not the solitary measure of effective communication.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I've noticed an alarming number of crimes committed by men - wife abuse, child abuse, rape, murder, theft, kidnapping, etc. I've also been concerned because I am a member of this nasty gender and so I am thinking deeply of not calling myself a 'male' any longer. Of course other synonyms, that also convey the same meaning, will have to go too (i.e. man, guy). I thought of 'adherent to the gender opposite female', but that also sounds too negative. How about, 'follower of those physically and mentally bound to be like Adam'? All this has me quite confounded. Perhaps certain words (despite their negative baggage) should be defended and held like a fort on a great frontier. Personally, I'm not quite in the mood to tank 'Christian'. The great part about being a Christian is that we share this same name with weirdos, radicals, wallflowers, professors, plumbers, jerks, and saints - in other words, people. Of course there's baggage. If that means that I have to explain a little bit more (via words and example) what a Christian is and should be, then amen. That just means I'll have to start conversations and relationships.
Great blog - glad I found you.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Debbie V. said...

I'm just an ordinary person that likes words. Some of this is a little above me, but here is my opinion. Those of us who care should be brave and use the words that fit, are precise as possible and still able to be understood by whomever one is speaking to.
I think this opinion might be due to my age, and in fact, people of my age can get away with this easier. It seems as I grow older I find myself wanting to preserve things - words, buildings, skills, books, etc. For instance, I don't want to see things like letter-writing (aka snail mail)and diary-keeping (with pen and paper) disappear, so I am determined to begin doing these again. The same thing with words. I have used the word gay in the past few months, and it went fine.

3:33 PM  

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