“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Mira Levitan

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946

Quick: Define fascism. Quick!

Too late. Next: Irony. Go.

You have no idea, do you? Be honest. I promise I won’t get angry. I won’t think you’re stupid. It’s okay if you don’t know. There are lots of words I don’t know. All I ask is, if you see or hear the word “irony” and don’t immediately think, “Ah, yes, irony: a method of expression in which the actual meaning of the words used is the opposite of their usual meaning” or “Oh, irony, of course: a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what might be expected or considered appropriate,” please don’t use the word yourself. Please. Never.

I’m serious. Don’t say it. Close your mouth and open a dictionary. It’ll take 20 seconds, tops. Then you’ll know. Then you can say it.

Irony is just the beginning. Fascism is another issue altogether. If you actually know what it means, good for you. If you’re like most college students, you suspect it means something like “stupid,” but you’re not really sure. And yet you say it. All the time. Why? Are you really paying so little attention to what you’re thinking that you’ll say “fascist” when you mean “capitalist” or “Democrat” or even “asshole”? Don’t you value your own opinion enough to express it clearly to others? Why are you glaring at me like that?

I know my aggressive and enthusiastic linguistic inquisitions often offend and/or annoy people. And indeed, somewhere in the deep recesses of my superego, a little voice squeaks disapproval every time I “ruin” a perfectly good conversation by pointing out a verbal snafu (my own or anyone else’s) mid-sentence. But I don’t hound people just for kicks. I’m not one of those militant grammarians who have massive heart attacks every time someone dares end a sentence with a preposition. In fact, as long as the meaning of the sentence is clear, I think a preposition is a fine word to end it with.

I get brash and tactless when people use words they don’t know because every aspect of our society – our legal system, our government, our foreign policy, our tax code, everything – is based on linguistic subtlety, and if average people are too lazy to tackle the really obvious stuff (e.g. looking up “fascist” before they decide once and for all that the conservative kid in their poli sci class is one), there’s little hope that they’ll notice when they’re being verbally duped by the people in control – the people who know what the words mean.

Case in point: Several months ago, the very minute the U.S. military invaded Iraq for the express purpose of overthrowing that nation’s government, CNN had a “War on Iraq” montage ready to go, complete with matching bottom-corner-of-screen graphics. A couple of days later, the montage and the graphics all said, “War in Iraq.” If the bulk of the viewing population still hasn’t bothered to distinguish irony from misfortune (Hello, Alanis Morrissette), how many people are going to get angry about one little preposition swap? Scarier still, how many will even notice the difference? (HINT: There is a big difference. A really big one. Think about it.)

Being picky about language is not just a goofy English-major hang up. Or it shouldn’t be. Words mean things, and knowing what they mean has many practical applications that are neither academic nor political. You’ll never be able to argue your way out of that speeding ticket, for instance, if you don’t know the exact wording and implications of the law you’re fighting. On trial for murder? Guilty? Then believe me, you’ll want to hire a lawyer who not only chooses her own words carefully, but also pays close attention to those of the judge, the prosecutor and the witnesses.

Every misused word, every slovenly expression could be a matter of life and death. Chances are, while you’re grumbling about the “fascist” who answered her cell phone during lecture, there’s a real fascist pushing unconstitutional legislation through Congress. You might say that was ironic. And if you did, you’d be wrong.

Henretty can be reached at ahenrett@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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