By Margaret Miller, longtime Creston Valley resident
I love words. My parents introduced me to good books at an early age. I enjoyed a long career exploring language and literature with teenagers, and my family enjoys a clever pun. So, it’s understandable that language interests me.
Oddly, this interest doesn’t translate to a talent for crosswords or scrabble. It’s the flow of language that appeals, the power of a finely tuned sentence or paragraph. Those one-at-a-time words don’t quite do it for me.
Language is a living beast, changing as our needs and society changes. Some new words, particularly slang expressions, come and go like the tide. Others stick around for centuries. Technological and social changes have created a host of new terms. Everything from twitter, blog, selfie, cryptocurrency, and freegan, to coronavirus and social distancing. Acronyms like LGBTQ+, BLM, WFH or PPE. Humorous word blends like bromance and mansplain. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with it all.
Some new words originated in published works. Good old Willy Shakespeare introduced hundreds in his plays and poems more than 400 years ago. Many of which are still in use today. Some were inventions, like swagger or lackluster. Others were formed by Will simply adding a prefix to existing words, like undress and unreal. Let’s hope unrich or unalive don’t wriggle into our modern wordscape!
George Orwell invented words in his famous 1949 novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Newspeak, the official language of his fictional Oceania, was intended to dummy-down the masses. It included words like bellyfeel (blind acceptance of an idea), duckspeak (mindless speech) and mini-lies (propaganda). Sounds like smart Mr Orwell had a crystal ball.
Ted Geisel, better known as Dr Suess, was another master of word play. His roll-off-the-tongue inventions like flunnel, nazzards, and yuzz-a-ma-tuzz amused kids and adults alike, but few made their way into everyday speech.
Language certainly has the potential to inform and entertain us. Used well to express substantiated fact or insights, it can teach, inspire, unite, and console.
But words can also do real harm. They can be used to insult and oppress. To confuse and divide. To ignite anger and fear. Vague phrasings, misinformation and emotional appeals seem to be rampant on-line these days and have the power to sway otherwise sensible folk into believing odd, sometimes dangerous, notions. Into ignoring logic and opting for untruths.
Conspiracy theories aren’t new. Remember these unsubstantiated claims from decades ago? The moon landing was faked. 9/11 was an inside job. The earth is actually flat. Or more recent myths? COVID vaccines implant tracking microchips. Top US Democrats are behind a child sex ring.
Sadly, social media platforms allow the language of misinformation to be quickly circulated.
In our time of rapid social change, a pandemic and online influencers, we need to stay vigilant when it comes to language. Some words or slogans can be deliciously enticing and overlook the complexity of an issue.
Consider “freedom” for instance. Sounds like something we all want, right? Something essential. Something worth fighting for. But is it always that simple? Freedom to perform what action? Freedom from responsibility and accountability? Freedom at any cost? Where does a society draw the line between personal freedom and public safety?
Another famous Orwell novel, “Animal Farm”, considered the power of words to distort the truth. In this famous satire, farmyard animals rebel against their human masters and establish a new law: “All animals are equal.” Four wise words indeed.
But trouble brews. Napoleon, the pig, establishes himself as dictator and uses the power of misinformation to maintain control. A few words are added to the old law and – presto – most of the farmyard sheep are convinced: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” More equal, hey?
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to ignite a falsehood. In Orwell’s cautionary tale, only seven words were needed to hide the truth. In our increasingly complex world – where society struggles to address rapid change and balance personal and public needs, and where the internet wields great power – we need to keep our mental wits about us.