When I was young, I had a little green turtle. He was about the size of a month washed bar of soap, and he cost an expensive fifty cent. I took care of him and he sat in his bowl and was, I suppose, happy. The only irritation in his little turtle life was that, on occasion, because he didn’t play or fetch, I would tap him on the back and watch him pull his head into his shell to protect himself. After a couple weeks that game got old and my turtle and I got along quite well together. Sometime later — time is a variant for kids — I absentmindedly tapped my finger on his shell, but he didn’t react and his shell wasn’t hard anymore. In fact, it was quite soft. After a couple of days, I discovered my turtle was going from bright green to dull brown, and maybe a week later, he finally stopped changing color and went to amphibian heaven. When you’re a kid, these things happen. Kids understand this, and they deal with it.
Now, many turtle-less years later, I’ve detected the same softening symptoms in our language. I’m worried that English, once strong and robust, is slowly softening to death. I’m not talking about clichés or euphemisms — they’re always with us and have been long before I was a child and my turtle had his fatal event. Nor am I complaining about young people who fill every sentence with incoherent combinations of “like” “totally” and “Whatever!” That’s just jargon — teenspeak — every generation does that. The same thing happened back in the 20s or the 60s or whenever I thought I was cool or groovy or hip or whatever I was. No, I’m talking about the systematic suppression of meaning in words that should actually mean something; about taking the rich bright palette of Shakespeare and Yeats and smooshing all the colors together until all we have left is some brownish-yellowish, listless mud. We use language to express ourselves, certainly. English is so precise, direct and dynamic we can pinpoint an idea within millimetres, but we also use it to define ourselves. We are what we say we are. But we’ve been slurring our words for so long we have no idea what we’re saying anymore. And as our words get squishy, so do the ideas and the attitudes they express. Now we’re sitting in a world that has become timid in the face of strong words and uncomfortable with bold or clearly defined ideas. The sad part is that, as we change our language to accommodate our fears there are some pretty serious side effects.
Unfortunately, our society absolutely loves a victim. We’re infatuated with injustice. In our affluent, stable society, where nothing much happens to ordinary people, victims are cool. They get to do things, fight battles, have setbacks, overcome odds, persevere and sometimes — because, for the most part, we do live in a kinder, gentler society — triumph. Along the way, they get to collect cool stuff — cards, flowers, those icky little teddy bears, the extra doughnut, and if it’s bad enough, a short term, part-time, celebrity. It’s like a perfect Reality TV slash Video Game. We can hardly wait to play “Ain’t It Awful?” We love victim-ness so much that, over the past few decades, we’ve paid Oprah Winfrey (yes, she still has a last name) and her wannabes gabillions of dollars just to tell us just how badly some people are getting kicked around. In a homogenized world where kids aren’t allowed to play tag and even the most extraordinary luxuries are merely a few mouse-clicks away, victims remind us that the world is still real – but in a carefully-controlled, electronically-safe environment. The problem is, from the outside, it looks like a good gig, and we’re adapting our language so more people can take part in it. Especially since victims get one other thing: they get to bitch.
Tomorrow — the words that are killing us