In Defense of Language

I encountered this post from the great Pete Morin on the blog From The Write Angle.

This past week, Boston’s illustrious Mayor, Thomas M. (“Mumbles”) Menino, in his inimitable high dudgeon, called upon the Nike company to cease its sale of tee shirts that, he said, condone the use of drugs.

The tee shirt has the word “dope” printed in large red letters, above a prescription pill vial, out of which spilled skateboards and snowboards. It is part of Nike’s campaign to celebrate vigorous outdoor physical activity:

“These T-shirts are part of an action sports campaign, featuring marquee athletes using commonly used and accepted expressions for performance at the highest level of their sport, be it surfing, skateboarding or BMX.”

Menino—an infamously dull-witted fellow who rarely completes a sentence without a malaprop—isn’t buying this clever marketing. He thinks the campaign is “outrageous,” and he’s calling on the company to cease and desist.

“Dope” is a versatile word, for 4 letters. Depending on its context, it can mean any number of things. From the Dictionary of American Slang:  

dope

n. 
a stupid person. :  That dope has done it again!
n. 
drugs in general; marijuana. :  How much dope do you do in a week anyway?
n. 
news; information; scuttlebutt. :  I got some dope on the tavern fire if you want to hear it.
mod. 
best; most excellent. :  We had a great time there. It was dope and dudical.

I love that—“dudical.”

It can also be used in a verb phrase, dope out, to mean (a) to figure out; calculate; devise: to dope out a plan; (b) to deduce or infer from available information: to dope out a solution to a problem.

But for Menino, there is only one meaning conveyed—or understood—those nefarious substances that are the bane of the inner city streets.

A while back, I posted about a kerfuffle involving a blog participant’s use of the phrase “tits up,” to mean—as was perfectly obvious in context—a business failure.

This was met by a chorus of outrage from some women who were offended by the slang use of their cherished body parts to convey the intended, and understood, meaning. That men have tits didn’t matter. If it is capable of offending someone (regardless of its intended meaning), it needs to go. This notion goes well beyond the venue of online chats.

As writers, while we are not constrained to leave our ideologies on the stoop, I submit that we have a superior fidelity to the meaning of language. Our task is to use words to convey thoughts and images as perfect and true to our intent as our language will permit (and even make up our own words, if that’s what works). This is not an obligation that ought to be confined to the work-in-progress. We do not sweat out perfect prose in fiction, punch a clock, and then slouch to the misuse of nouns—or too their misinterpretation, whether we are the speaker or listener. When we see or hear a word with multiple meanings, we don’t apply one that is obviously unintended.

What is at stake here is something quite sinister—something George Orwell portrayed in a rather iconic masterpiece. That is the risk that someone else is going to tell you what your words mean, or worse yet, whether you can say them at all, and they might even spy on you to do it (that last link is frighteningly replete with such instances). Someone else is going to determine that your speech has racist intent. Or that you are a sexist.

Or that you are promoting drug use.

There is nothing relative about language. Words have their etymology. Used with care and clarity, they convey a specific, intended meaning. Where they are misinterpreted to mean something clearly unintended, it is not the fault of the speaker.

As you slave over your manuscript tonight after the children are in bed, consider how difficult your task would be if you had to examine each of words to insure that they were not capable of being misinterpreted by someone with another agenda—one having nothing to do with truth.

[I am glad that—to date—Nike is sticking to its guns (oh my, how inappropriate a metaphor!) on this. For my part, I think the campaign is anti-drug. Get high on life; surfing, snowboarding and surfing are our drug of choice, etc.]

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2 Responses to In Defense of Language

  1. pete says:

    Here’s the dope. Don’t be a dope and do dope. Now hang gliding? That’s dope!

  2. Rebecca Lochlann says:

    “The great Pete Morin….” Do you realize you’re giving him a swelled head? 🙂

    (I do love the English language.)

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