Magazine article Insight on the News

Devolutionary War of Words

Magazine article Insight on the News

Devolutionary War of Words

Article excerpt

In the wake of the bombing in Oklahoma City, President Clinton contended that extremist rhetoric heard on radio and television talk shows contributed to the conception and execution of that terrorist act. Although White House spokesmen have denied it, there is a tacit belief that Clinton's remarks were directed at Rush Limbaugh, who has elsewhere forcefully denied any connection between the bombers and his radio and television programs. This controversy revives the debate about the relationship between what we say and what we do, which is intimately connected to a disturbing growth in the numbers and influence of the inarticulate.

The president would have been more on target if he faulted the callers to talk shows rather than the hosts. The root of the problem has to do with the words that are used and their revelation of the users' perceptions of the world. The words we use most frequently today are changing rapidly and in directions that are contentious, negative and violent. According to language researcher Raymond Gozzi Jr., who studied the words entering our language over a 25-year period, "If the trends in the vocabulary continue, we can predict a social reality of increasing stereotypes, ideology and social conflict ... and we will increasingly define communication in combative terms."

Many new words emphasize our differences and politicize areas of everyday life that never previously carried the freight of ideology. To call someone a nerd or a dweeb is far more derogatory than saying, as we used to, that one is too intelligent for their own good. Even such a seemingly innocuous term as "working mother" today has political undertones.

The overuse of euphemisms and of stigmatizing phrases, the endless repetition of slogans, various emotional and mnemonic devices for twisting and directing the thoughts of hearers: These are Nazi and Soviet language practices that we once excoriated. Surfing through the AM and FM radio dials, sampling the worst of talk radio, I hear many echoes of them. One caller's human enemies are "vermin" to be "exterminated"; a second repeatedly characterizes federal employees as "bumbling bureaucrats"; many others cast every controversy, big or small, in terms of apocalyptic battle. We are in danger of becoming what we heard and once despised.

The verbal violence quotient of the language has been further heightened by the increased use of expletives. …

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