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The War of the Words

Andrew C. Thomas

I’m waiting for the Constitutional overhaul on gay marriage. I don’t know if the “Frist Amendment” is too over the top for this Congress, but we’ve definitely seen worse. These days, everything is being fought at the level of the dictionary. Words, phrases and abbreviations are all coming under scrutiny as much as the issues surrounding them.

I can only guess what’s causing this trend: sloppy workmanship. When someone realized that the proposed acronym for the recent invasion, Operation Iraqi Liberation, would give talk show hosts and peaceniks all the ammo they needed, they hurriedly changed the last word to the now monotonous “Freedom.” When several years ago the newly-reformed Canadian Opposition party chose the name Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance, journalists threw the word Party back onto the end within minutes.

This is giving us a great look at the ever-abused acronym these days. It’s a scourge whose modern day resurgence seems to be grounded in biology. Rather than coin a clever term or flex linguistic muscles, researchers simply slap together a few letters from the composition of their molecule or complex of choice. Mind you, this does have the practical effect of curbing guesswork on the parts of scientists, who might be ignorant of the molecule’s function, but gone are the days when a name would be given just to sound impressive. The word “chromosome,” Greek for “colored thing,” certainly fits that bill. But now diseases are -- ahem -- sanitized with cold names. HIV, which causes AIDS, has been around for years; but the mindlessly unoriginal and redundant SARS was the last straw.

But words, and awful acronyms, do not always have meanings or implications wrought in stone. Anybody watching the ongoing debate on marriage knows that the word is under pressure. Both sides have the idea that the word is sacred, that the word is and should be immutable. “I believe that marriage is” is, in one form or another, the way most will begin a brief philosophical statement. President Bush wants to “codify” the definition of marriage “one way or another.”

Indeed, the very nature of language both shows us that language evolves and that words do as well. “Exploit” was once negative, but somehow became benign in its new business definition. But vestiges of the past are omnipresent; since Roman times, the words “niger” and “candidus” -- black and white -- have taken on the social prejudices of the time (and, sadly, more recent times) and manifested themselves quietly in everyday speech. Among other philosophers, Nietzsche believed that the concepts of guilt and debt were linked by common origin in the German language (“Schuld”).

But back to Senator Frist and his battle. In the latest phase, those who are against gay marriage have focused on the word. By allowing two people of the same sex to bind themselves in marriage (none of this business about “holy matrimony” in Congress, please), the institution would change, breaking traditions maintained for millennia. This beast, the fear of change, has Republican Party tattooed on its behind.

But words are symbolic in nature, reflecting what we understand of them. This is why, as George Carlin points out, despite the efforts of our most linguistically-advanced doctors, we haven’t succeeded in curing “shell shock” by slowly turning it into “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Recently, I met an old man who referred to a black person as “colored” and he didn’t bat an eye; likewise, many people will object to my use of the term “black” and insist that the overused “African-American” is correct. This apoplexy over the use of certain words has little to do with the label itself; it has far more to do with our ambiguous feelings about these issues that words will overturn.

As fellow columnist Shankar Mukherji ’04 has recently pointed out, just because the word “marriage” does not mean “the union of two people” to Dr. Frist does not mean that it can’t to others. Language is a common tool for people to interact, not to delimit, and should be free to evolve with our own changing world views.

Perhaps Dr. Frist and Mr. Bush would change their tune when they consider the operation of L’Academie Francaise, the institution dedicated to the preservation of the French language, which recently perceived a great transatlantic threat in the ubiquitous term “e-mail,” replacing it with “courriel”.

I do not suggest that we begin to act like the French and artificially purge our language, hoping to rid it of the vestiges of racism. Can we remove the word “candid” from our vocabulary? Not overnight, but I’m in favor. However, words like “niggardly” have begun to disappear, despite the fact that the word does not derive from the offensive term, but still resembles it. Few couples who split the costs of a night out these days even give a second thought to historical prejudices against the Dutch.

The war of the words is ongoing. No battle is nearly as hilarious, irreverent, or brilliant, as debating what the meaning of the word “is” is, but each is helping to give the world another look at the language we take for granted.