Words, Words, Words

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

We are awash in words. Our thoughts are words. We talk with words, we read words, we listen to words. We depend on words to define our reality. And when we hear the same pronouncement often enough, most of us come to believe the pronouncement is fact even if the only proof is repetition.

Shortly after the World Trade Center came tumbling down, a comprehensive national poll revealed that less than one per cent of the American population believed Sadaam Hussein had anything to do with that event. Then the administration of George Bush, speaking through their corporate media, embarked on an all-day-every-day-all-channel campaign of repetition stating briefly and with no corroborating evidence that Sadaam was joined at the hip with Osama Bin Laden and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Six months and ten million repetitions later, a new poll revealed that seventy-nine per cent of the American people believed Sadaam was directly involved in bringing down the twin towers. Repetition of an unfounded lie became general belief.

For a month now this same corporate media has been calling the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico a leak. I think they have intentionally chosen the word leak so we will associate this unprecedented disaster with a dripping faucet. What do you think of when you hear the word leak? Certainly not millions and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the ocean for days and weeks and months on end. Yet even after movies began to appear on television and on the Internet showing the oil gushing from a massive broken pipe, commentators continued to use the word leak. As of this writing, that catastrophic gusher is still being called a leak, with only a few of the more daring journalists using the word spill, which is also inaccurate and inadequate.

Do our overlords think we’re stupid? You bet they do. You may recall some years ago when there used to be occasional news of the war that has never ended in Iraq, commentators and journalists referred to Iraqis killed by American forces as insurgents; a brilliant choice of words for the purposes of propaganda, the word evoking visions of faceless murderers surging out of shadowy alleyways, no? The dictionary defines an insurgent as one who participates in a revolt, otherwise known as a rebel. The soldiers of the Confederacy during the American Civil War were called rebels. But Iraqis battling the invaders of their homeland, as well as noncombatant Iraqis who died in the onslaught, were not honored as rebels or even called Iraqis, but were dehumanized by the term insurgents. Call me naïve, but I believe had the word Iraqis been used in place of the word insurgents, the American public, as stupefied as we are, would have been compelled through those millions of repetitions of the truth (as opposed to the lie) to take action to end the illegal war.

Please note that the word insurgents is now being used to describe citizens of Afghanistan killed by American and NATO invaders; and in a further twist of truth, insurgent is being used interchangeably with the word Taliban, which I predict will soon become a common noun spelled with a lower case t. Talk about reframing reality.

I think it is extremely important to be aware of the intentional misuse of single words in the context of the larger tracts of misinformation that constitute most of our news today. My current favorite misused word is socialism. The dictionary definition of socialism is: a political and economic theory of social organization based on collective ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods. A public utility, a worker-owned business, a well-regulated oil industry, a free healthcare system, public education, a system of freeways as opposed to toll roads, these are all facets of socialism. But to hear the pundits bandy the word, they might as well be talking about insurgence.

A lawyer friend regaled me with what she learned at a seminar on how to lead witnesses. A video of a moving car striking a parked car was shown to thirty people. Out of earshot of each other, ten of these witnesses were asked to estimate how fast the car was going when it bumped the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it collided with the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it smashed into the parked car. The word Bump generally elicited a guess of ten miles per hour, Collide produced guesses of twenty miles per hour, and Smash inspired guesses upward of thirty miles per hour. Same video, different verbs.

Leak. Spill. Gusher.

Insurgent. Iraqi. Patriot.

Contractor. Mercenary. Hired killer.

For decades, my grandmother Goody fought valiantly against the misuse of the word hopefully. Someone would say, “Hopefully it will rain tomorrow,” and Goody would respond, “Hopefully is an adverb. Which verb in your sentence were you hoping to modify?”

“Uh…rain?”

“Can it be said that rain falls hopefully? Perhaps you meant to say I am hopeful that it will rain tomorrow.”

Or another person might say, “Hopefully I’ll get the job.”

“Hopefully?” Goody would echo with undisguised irony in her voice. “I fail to see which verb you are attempting to modify?”

“Er…”

“Did you mean to say I hope to get the job, or did you mean to say Should good fortune shine on me I will get the job?”

A year before she died, Goody said to me, “I fear I have lost the battle, but comfort myself that I have at least saved you.”

“I will do my best to carry on the good fight,” I said, smiling hopefully, yet knowing I didn’t stand a chance against the gushers of semi-literate insurgents arising from the ruptured pipes of our once pretty good socialist system of education.

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books won the 2010 Indie Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction, the 2009 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Bronze Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for Fiction.

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