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THE WORD IS NOT THE THING

By Ruth Minshull

A friend called me the other day to ask how I was doing.  “Just fine,” I told her.  We chatted awhile, before she said, “Well, I just thought I’d check on you.  I like to keep track of my, ah, mature people.  We don’t use that other word around here.”

That other word?

Oh, I realized, she must mean “old”.

Well, she had managed to convey that she thought I was old.  (It was like telling someone “Don’t think about a pink walrus.”)  Anyway, I had begun to suspect the “old” thing all by myself, with the help of the calendar, the mirror and an increasing assortment of aches and pains.

She really did insult me, however, with her clumsy avoidance of the O word.  Did she think I was so fragile that hearing the word would make me crumble and blow away like a desiccated leaf?  Or was she herself so fragile that she couldn’t bear to hear or use the word?  (She’s merely six years younger than I am.)

I wanted to shout at her, “The word is not the thing!”

Saying the word does not make me suddenly age—to think old, act old, or even resist feeling old.  It’s just a word.

I grew up with kids chanting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  This was the standard response to the insults we freely exchanged.

What has happened to people?

Of course, there have always been mean-spirited folks who like to put others down with cruel comments and invalidations.  But nowadays they have to be much more subtle about it, because the word police are ever-vigilant.

At one time we could say deaf, dumb, blind or crippled–and the sky never fell in.  And, as far as I could see, people afflicted with these problems were not offended by the descriptive words.  Oddly, at the same time, we never ever heard the vulgar four-letter words that are so loosely flung around in comedy shows, Eddie Murphy movies and Joan River specials.  They’re not fooling anybody with those bleeps.  (It’s just the pink walrus thing again.)

These days, if a person utters a politically incorrect word (or even a word that sounds similar) someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended.  The offender may be publicly chastised, have a career destroyed, lose a nomination, or get fired—even when there were no bad intentions.

People often say, “It is what it is.”  Well, this may seem like a pretty useful statement unless you’re a government bureaucrat.  In that case it’s more likely to be “It is what we’ve renamed it to be.”

I’ve read that the pentagon prefers the words “resource constrained environment” when they mean that there isn’t enough money to go around.

And just the other day I heard that government authorities, in their infinite love of obfuscation, have declared that the word “hunger” is no longer allowable.  In its stead is “very low food security.”  (Can’t you just see the indoctrinated four-year-old of tomorrow saying, “Mommy I have very low food security.  Can I have a cookie?”

When I was a child, we often had men come to the back door offering to work in exchange for food.  We called them “tramps” or “hobos” and my mother always fed them.  Now, of course, such vagrants are called “homeless” and—even if they haven’t eaten for three days—they must be greatly comforted by knowing that they are no longer hungry, but simply, enduring very low food security in a resource constrained environment.

You have to stay current on the latest euphemism or one slip of the word and you could suffer the contemporary version of getting tarred, feathered, and dragged out of town.

All this tiptoeing around is because too many people are offended by language.  Too many people think the word is the thing.  And their censoring is choking our freedom of speech.

I’m fed up with not thinking about all those pink walruses; I’m bored with all the offendees and their tiresome mewlings.

In fact, I’m offended by them.

Where can I go to complain?

* * *

(c)2010 by Ruth Minshull

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