The Naming of Things

People who know me are well aware that I'm a grammarian; this is not to say that I'm a great authority on usage (just days ago I was asking Miriam whether it was necessary to maintain subject-verb agreement between a parenthesis and its surrounding sentence--she was no help, though neither were Safire or Fowler), but what I do understand is second nature. Print mistakes like misplaced apostrophes, homonym confusions, and common misspellings are jarring to read; spoken phenomena like verbed nouns, forgotten clauses and bad coinages ("reuptake," "majorly") are glaring. I'm a language geek and always have been; I have a long list of pet peeves.

But leaving aside the measurable rules of grammar for a moment, I believe there is also a sort of higher purpose to language, and that this deserves a spirited defense by its speakers, far more than do any details of its operational rules. Language exists to describe what is, to transmit an understanding accurately. Language is for telling the truth.

The bane of this guiding principle is the technicality, of course. A year ago, an old friend gave me a quick lesson in the language of advertising and product labeling; courts have determined, for example, that to be called "a sanitizer" a product must meet exacting standards, destroying not 99% of bacteria but 99.999% if I remember correctly. Sounds like the difference between small and smaller, I thought, until she reminded me that bacteria multiply exponentially--leave one percent intact out of any substantial population, and ten minutes later you'll have as many as you had to begin with. You have to do away with virtually all of them if you want them to stay away.

The problem is that no such standard must be met for a chemical manufacturer to emblazon the word "sanitizing" right on the bottle of its product. Those different forms of the same word mask a critical difference in meaning--a secret meaning, determined by sequestered legal specialists, of which most of the public has no awareness at all. A "hand sanitizer" probably has alcohol in it, and will work. A "sanitizing hand lotion" means bupkus. But since the law doesn't forbid its being printed on the bottle, there it is, even though the meaning that phrase deliberately conveys to unspecialized speakers of English happens to be a big fat lie.

Corporations are relentless purveyors of this kind of abuse of language--the lie that by some legal technicality is permissible under the law--and it's depressing to confront the weight of all that we don't know about what their products really are. Politicians and political crusaders are also, of course, well known for inventing catch-phrases so weighted as to be bewildering, and in the most extreme cases, appallingly false. Our current adminstration has established a thunderous record of deliberately distorting names, between "Homeland Security," the "Axis of Evil" and "Offensive Deterrence." But I chose not to post this in my Commentary section because that's not what I want to focus on. Civilian activists are often just as guilty. Anti-abortion rabblerousers love to speak of legalized abortion as "the American Holocaust," which is by any reasonable measure an insult to the gravity of the Holocaust, (especially, uttered while survivors of that horror still live); opponents of the death penalty sometimes call themselves "abolitionists" which is an equally offensive diminution of the monumental evil that was American slavery, the smallest part of which was the legal right of certain people to kill others.

But the worst sort of false name is the forgotten one. Think for a moment about when you first heard the term "ethnic cleansing." In the early 90s that term was the subject of much derision in the press: it was Slobodan Milosevic's double-talk description of the massacres his troops were conducting against ethnic Albanians in his own country. "Cleansing." Making an ethnicity clean.
From Merriam Webster:

Main Entry: cleanse
Pronunciation: 'klenz
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): cleansed; cleans-ing
: CLEAN; especially : to rid of impurities by or as if by washing

When we first heard that, we were shocked that anyone might so openly refer to the killing of people as though it were equivalent to the removal of a stain, an impurity. We knew the crudest sort of racism when we heard it. But maybe the media got a little too gleeful in their parroting of that term, maybe it faded into simple habit, because some time over the last ten years, the indignation went away--and so did those quotation marks. You won't see the phrase "ethnic cleansing" outside of its quotes on any page of mine. But if you pick a major newspaper and follow the international news for a few days, you'll see it over and over again. Stripped of its sarcasm, as though it were simply a bland descriptive term, suitable for journalism--not an unabashed repudiation of truth from the mouth of one of the bloodiest human beings alive.

It takes a little focus and dedication to stay in charge of your own speech, to know whose words you're using and what they mean, literally as well as habitually. But language unmonitored is like a machine nobody maintains--sooner or later it will simply cease to serve its function.