Putting the power of words back in the mouths of the people.
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 it—using 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?
Several weeks ago I self-consciously observed myself using a phrase that raised a question of verbal ethics. I almost paused in the middle of a gripping story post to muse:
Now there’s a strange phrase. How exactly does something “turn up missing?” Is using these three words in the same breath akin to committing intellectual suicide?
Instead, I saved my query for a footnote. But the issue has bothered me ever since. The question isn’t precisely one of vocabulary. If I used different words, “emerge absent” for example, the original dilemma would be lost—exchanged for a case of imprecision, which has a ready enough answer. (Although if I said, “she appears to be absent” the problem would be similar.) The issue seems to be one of principled usage.
What are the ethical implications of tacking words together in a meaning-laden phrase that apparently ridicules the actual meaning of the words? If the issue was sarcasm, the problem would be peripheral, because the sting of sarcasm relies on the true gist of the words involved (I.e., “I’m so glad you could join us” is meaningful because we apply the inverse of the meaning.) But clearly, a statement like “turn up missing” is meant to be taken at face value—and there’s the rub. The face value seems to deface language. I’m slapping together a phrase at the expense of words. Like building a bouquet at the expense of flowers.
My concern is acute. By attributing meaning to a phrase like “turn up missing,” am I subverting the import of the implicated words? Am I eroding their inherent value? That would, of course, make me feel awful.
There must be a conclusive answer to this question.
There's a semi-official book discussion going on at BitterSweetLife that might interest some of you. The primary question is, How does a book "stand the test of time" on its way to greatness? Readers are challenged to generate their own posts on the topic. Seeing as the VRP has been known to take on somewhat esoteric issues in the past, I couldn't resist mentioning the challenge here. From the original post:
After all, "the test of time" is a somewhat ambiguous phrase. Exactly what type of test is time dishing out, anyway? Is it a one-time event or an on-going phenomenon? Once a book has stood the test of time, can it later flunk out? What kind of book tends to survive? What qualities have that time-defying element?
Because the question is partly semantic in nature, I thought some of you might want to wade in and write a quick post. If you're interested, be sure to read the original piece and link up.
For several weeks, apparently, the sidebar has been showing signs of indolence. From a design standpoint, this was intolerable. From the standpoint of iconography and symbolism, things were worse yet. Clearly, the Member List could not be depicted as lagging, sagging, drooping, or in any way secondary to the success of this project. Other crucial items in the lapsed sidebar only exacerbated the crisis.
Well, it's fixed.
In the end, I started with a brand new Minima template and added the custom components back in, piece by piece. Wouldn't you know it - after careful analysis, I discovered that the problem was...nothing!
The template now exists precisely as it did before, as far as I can tell. But now it displays correctly. Fair enough, I guess, as long as we can all go home now.
I should also mention that I updated the Bloglet subscription service to FeedBlitz, an impressive new email delivery service. I was able to successfully transfer over all previous subscribers, with the exception of those whose email addresses were anonymous. So if your email feed cuts out, simply sign up again with FeedBlitz (sidebar). And if you encounter any complications, send me a note.
For anyone interested, I'm still troubleshooting the weird IE sidebar-display issue. Erin has been giving me some great tech advice, but we haven't figured out the problem yet. Ads have been pulled, columns have been resized...nada.
To make things even more interesting, a display glitch has started showing up in my normally intrepid Firefox browser as well. Is nothing sacred?
But fear not, being the aesthetic perfectionist I am, I'll persevere until I get this fixed - even if it means rebuilding with a new template. Call it a case of display eros.
In the meantime, feel free to add your own coding suggestions to the pile. If one of them actually works, maybe I'll send you a prize or something. ;)
An issue that goes hand-in-glove with the cause of Vocabulary Reclamation is that of spelling. Putting small characters in rows. Assembling interrelated puzzles from memory. Demonstrating your linguistic superiority.
The very word can make one a pariah, shutting down jovial conversations instantaneously and separating close friends. Professors have been known to blanch when their spelling is questioned in the classroom. But just the same, some people love it. Probably because they are good at it, and the value of this accomplishment is enhanced by the bitter stares of the non-spellers.
At this point, rather than provide a detailed discussion of which camp I fall in, I prefer to submit this open question:
To what degree is spelling prowess necessary to a strong vocabulary?