We float on a sea of words, are buffeted by winds of words, tread upon pathways carved from words. Communication being the glue of society, we are united by the words that define and dissect our world. But the sheer ubiquity of words, coupled with our cavalier use of them, has annihilated this fundamental construct of our civilization: words appear to have lost all meaning. The nefarious among us have used the illusion of linguistic nuance to exploit our language for their own devices and for our destruction. We must reclaim the objectivity and the primacy of vocabulary.
When a word can mean anything, it means nothing. Politicians have never been fantastic at speaking directly, but we have reached the zenith of sheer absurdity. “Tax break” can now mean “tax increase;” a “reduction in troops” can now mean “escalation of hostilities.” And, I am not even talking about the outright, unapologetic lying that currently characterizes our national discourse, a topic that ironically outrages me to the point that I have no words. Apparently, our leaders think so little of the citizenry that they do not believe that we understand the difference between “yes” and “no.” Let us not let them abscond with our dignity along with our jargon.
When a word is claimed to mean nothing, it means everything. Casual use of slurs or barely-disguised cyphers is still disturbingly common. If questioned, the speaker will often respond that it is merely a word, that their best friend is black or queer or developmentally disabled, or make somesuch other inexcusable excuse. There is nothing casual or lighthearted about racism, homophobia, misogyny, or hatred. Just because the alleged friend has not yet confronted the speaker about their poor choice of words does not mean that they are not wounded by the hate speech. And, as a society, we are finally moving into a zone where we recognize the devastating nature of a mere word. Even seemingly innocuous words like “them” or “those people” are loaded with insinuations of otherness and therefore are no better than more obvious terms.
Even though a word may mean nothing, it can still mean something. Our vernacular is littered with words that have become cliché and therefore impotent. We hear “awesome,” or “love,” or “thanks” and we roll our eyes because Mount Everest is awesome, but finding a stray quarter in a vending machine is not. A couple who uses “I love you” as a rote salutation has stripped the magic out of the phrase. The same three words uttered with the passion that should accompany them can change the world. Because “thank you” has been rendered almost meaningless, people assume that it is no longer necessary. For shame. It is no wonder that every parent harps on their child to use “please” and “thank you:” these are the Adam and Eve of manners.
Verbose to a fault, I struggle to balance the need for linguistic efficiency with my obsession with language. Challenged in this regard, I nonetheless intuitively and anecdotally understand the power of words. Respect and stand by the words that you use and in turn respect and love yourself and respect and support others. And, when you fail in this mission, as we all do, remember that the words “I am sorry,” spoken with authenticity, are among the most important words in our arsenal.