Strictly Speaking. . .
We communicate in many ways.
We communicate with our eyes, our facial expressions and body language but most of our communication is with words. Interestingly, our non-verbal communication tends to be the most accurate because it is subconscious most of the time; a natural emotional response to what we feel about whatever is being communicated by or to us. Words, on the other hand, can be used to both deliver information and to obscure it.
George Carlin used to say that there are no bad words, only bad intentions and he was right to a point. Words like Nigger (or “the ‘N’ word as the politically correct refer to it) has negative connotations for some in society but is often used positively by many in the black community. The meaning of the word doesn’t change but its social acceptability is determined by who is using the word rather than by what it means.
It’s the same with the word ‘fuck’ which for a very long time was considered to be the ultimate uh-oh word in polite company. You could take the Lord’s name in vain, curse someone out until you were blue in the face but you refrained from using the Big F generally and virtually never in mixed company.
That has changed, of course. Fuck is now one of the most common expletives used these days and even parents and their off-spring will use it comfortably in front of each other. The meaning of the word hasn’t changed and neither has its various uses just its social acceptability has undergone transformation.
None of that is really all that important, however. Attempting to classify words as good or bad is like deciding that certain hair colours are negative or positive. Generally speaking, words are words and vocabulary is a singularly personal thing. You use the words you’re comfortable with (and hopefully can spell) in the expectation that it communicates your intended message.
The fact that some vocabularies are better than others doesn’t really change that simple fact.
We tend, however, to collectively overwork some words until they become virtually meaningless. This is often the result of an over-abundance of enthusiasm to elevate or denigrate something.
The word ‘excellence’ was a word that was so overworked in the 90s that it very quickly lost its original meaning. Companies were pursuing excellence with all of the enthusiasm of fat kids chasing an ice cream cart down the street. Academic institutions were striving for the highest standards of academic excellence while continuing to deliver the same basic curriculum year after year. Even athletes were the result of a dedication to excellence rather than the pursuit of lucrative professional contracts. Every accomplishment no matter how minor, every vision statement no matter how banal managed to get itself associated with the word excellence until the word was so meaningless it soon became a synonym for mediocre.
This was particularly true when more and more people and organizations used the word excellence to define what was really not much more than average accomplishment. It was an attempt to elevate nothing much into something it wasn’t as if using the word excellence somehow magically transformed lack of accomplishment into something superlative.
In the phrase “a commitment to excellence”, it often turned out that the word ‘commitment’ was as meaningless as the word ‘excellence’.
Lately, the word ‘hero’ is following the same path as excellence. You hardly go a day without reading or hearing about someone being a hero. It used to be that heroes were those who rose above the norm and fortunately, we still actually do have real heroes. They showed an abundance of courage in the face of great danger, usually to protect or save others. These days, anyone can be a hero and for a wide range of little more than simply doing something out of the ordinary or dying unexpectedly.
The issue isn’t so much the elevation of mediocrity as it is the denigrating of the word’s value. If everyone is a hero for simply doing the obvious, then nobody is a hero.
Genius is another of those over-worked, cheapened words. Stephen Hawking is a genius. Albert Einstein was a genius. They thought things and saw things nobody had ever seen or thought before. Michael Jackson was not a genius. He was incredibly talented as are so are many others but that isn’t genius.
Sometimes in an over-abundance of enthusiasm, people will link unrelated words together in an attempt to elevate an individual’s accomplishment. A professional athlete who scores the winning run or the winning goal can be labeled both heroic and a genius. Accomplished? Absolutely but heroic genius? Hardly.
That may sound like nit-picking to some but language is important – too important to be treated so cheaply.
Language can be used to educate, inform, to educated, to encourage and to hurt. It is our most important means of communicating with each other and poor use of language mangles meaning to the point that communicating effectively becomes impossible and little more than baffle gab.
Politicians are masters of meaningless language having mastered the art of baffle gab to the level of art. The recent federal election in Canada underscored that once again as politicians once again went out of their way to make sure that we clearly did not understand what they were saying clearly to us.
During the 60s, the oft-repeated buzz phrase was ‘communications gap’ which typically referred to the gap in understanding between generations. Typically, it was used more as an excuse for not making the effort to understand each other than to accurately define the issue. The real communication gap isn’t between different generations, however, it is between those who respect language sufficiently to try and use it accurately and those who use language as carelessly as politicians use their opportunity to serve.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that we may not have to worry about the misuse of language for much longer when describing something or someone. Thanks to the progress made possible by messaging technology the language of Shakespeare, Keats and Thoreau is being reduced to almost unintelligible hieroglyphics not unlike cave drawings.
Progress it seems is neither heroic nor excellent.
© 2015 Maggie’s Bear
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