Monday, December 27, 2010

Dull Roar

For such a young species we seem to be using up our greatest gift awfully fast. I'm not thinking of our children here, or the future, or the Earth itself. (Indeed, from the planets viewpoint we and all of our toys are a momentary pimple.) No, I'm saying that the greatest thing we gave ourselves is quickly becoming irrelevant.

I speak of Language.

I don't know exactly when the thread of continuity snapped for me. Was it the first time a product was "Maximum Strength" and then became stronger? The first time I bought a can of fruit packaged in "whole segments"? The first time the TV told me to borrow "up to $10,000 - or more?" Or perhaps it was as late as gasoline coming in "regular unleaded".

Somewhere our language fumbled the great ball of Meaning. Or maybe we intercepted and ran it out of bounds.

I don't know exactly when, but by the time I went to a "business park" and found a car dealer there "open seven days - including Sundays" who wanted to sell me a car with a list of "mandatory options" I was paying less and less attention and cranking the iPod volume more and more.

Words are simply losing touch. When all the rooms become 'suites' then none of them are. When something is "Ultra!" and then is improved, then somebody lied. When 'doughnut' loses its 'ugh' it loses its family tree. When spelling becomes streamlined it becomes irrelevant - and it's not. Communication is farcical enough without weedeating the words. 'Light' has weight. 'lite' has no calories.

Okay, okay. Sometimes the words themselves get stuck in mixed media marriages and blame is hard to assign. "random order" and "divorce court" conjure up images of vacuums sucking themselves up. But hey, somebody is responsible for "jumbo shrimp" and they should be dipped in liquid paper.

Somebody evil thought up "forward defense".

It's no wonder that we are a numb and apathetic society. Folks have been lobbing a lot of gibberish at us. I can't blame anybody for just flipping through the magazine of modern living and looking at the pictures. Advertising, propaganda, and pop psychology are a triumvirate of incoherency and they are deconstructing logic and understanding like a 5 year old with their first screwdriver.

I experienced no great surge of self-esteem when my job morphed from "maid" to "Environmental Technician". It just meant that I had to explain it to people. To me an "Environmental Technician" could be anything from an interior decorator to a cloud. Before that I was, officially, an "Electronic Salesperson" which always made me want to check myself for a battery compartment.

If this were tearing down society it would get some attention. But it is eroding the great hillside of Meaning slowly. It started small, long ago; little things, like Good Friday. An odd phrase, considering that it's the day Jesus died. What was good about that? And the tide has been rising ever since. Nowadays the hysterical barrage of data is met by a three stage human reaction: A blank stare, a shrug, and then a nap.

Is there any satiation to be found in a society suckled on superlatives? Is there a future for a generation that can't stick the Civil War in the proper half-century? (and when has war ever been civil?) Is there anything compelling left in a people who can't be compelled to vote?

In the laceration of our language I feel disempowered. I have yet to run across the book: "50 simple things you can do to reverse human nature". However I am trying to break myself of the habit of proofreading graffiti (“suck” has a 'C' and a 'K', kids, and there are two 'Z's in “Ozzy”). And I inked out that part of my badge that says "Transportation Engineer" and put back in "Driver". It's a start.

Angus McMahan


  1. I don't know that I agree, to a certain extent. Language evolves. It is never what is was, and what it will be will only have meaning to those who live in that future. I listen to Carlin's take on Shell Shock to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I think- Yes, he is right. Maybe if it WAS called Shell Shock, the vets would get more attention. But the fact is, "shell shock" is a word from WWII. Just as our words and phrases would not work in their world, sometimes theirs will not work in ours. I do believe we think in language, which is why it is so important to expand our language skills, learning to think culturally, learning to think with words we are unfamiliar with. I LIKE using the phrase "OMG". Yes, a stupid acronym, same amount of syllables. But when I say that, I could be cursing to anyone's god (or goddess!) I am an equal opportunity curser. Yes, language was more eloquent in the days of yore, but there is an equal, subtle beauty to the phrases of today. PTSD- by expanding the word, it recognizes that there are so many others who are traumatized outside of the military. Or perhaps, I am just too lazy to really learn how to properly use my language. You decide. (Btb, you ask me to comment, as if I could make it less than 5 words. Silly man.)

  2. I'm totally with ya, and I am certainly guilty of adding new items to the lexicon from time to time. My focus with this piece was less on language as a whole, and more on how Advertising mangles it.
    And yes, I did ask to you comment. Watch and see if I do THAT again. *eyeroll*

  3. Well, can't uncook the goose. So I'm commenting anyways!! I think advertisement language is just a slight exaggeration of the American language, trying to reflect the language and stereotypes of our culture. But, since the average intelligence and education level is decreasing, so is our ability to use our language effectively and skillfully. Note: Idiocracy. (Ummm, I still like making fun of those who can't use language. Like government and advertising. And Facebookers.)