Rattus Schmattus

rattus strip

This comic is more poignant to me than Scott Adams probably intended. The power of words to harm or heal, and the futility of trying to change hearts by changing labels, are nailed by these three pithy little panels. No matter what you call yourself, haters gonna hate.

Several months back, during the presidential debates, Ann Coulter called President Obama “the retard” on Twitter and implied that he was trying to secure “the retarded vote.” The use of “retard” and “retarded” as offensive slang is now so common that some young people might be justly surprised to learn that the words have any other meanings. I consulted some online dictionaries to check the status of the word “retarded” in contemporary usage. Merriam-Webster gave a primary definition of slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress; The Free Dictionary filled the number-one slot with affected with mental retardation but added the qualifier, often offensive. The traditional definition is slipping, but still far from obsolete.

The use of these words as insults rather than descriptive terms is meant to be funny, and it often succeeds. “Retarded” has an edge that “stupid” lacks, precisely because of that other, primary definition hovering around the edge of the conscious mind. I often laugh myself when I hear it used that way, when I’m caught off guard and the delivery is clever. But I’m always ashamed afterwards, because I always think of my oldest brother, who was what might nowadays be referred to as “cognitively impaired.” In spite of his disability, Magoo, as he was called, had a strong people-sense that transcended cognition. I never knew him, but growing up I was fascinated by the stories about his surprising displays of intuition, compassion, affection, and humor. Like the time at the amusement park when he held back his younger brothers and sisters to let another group of children go first on the rides. It turned out this group was from a school for the deaf. No one had told Magoo that, but on some level he knew these kids deserved special consideration and took it upon himself to give it to them. Or the time when, standing in the grocery checkout line with Dad, he became so enchanted with a nearby baby in a carriage, who happened to be black, that he unselfconsciously kissed the child. (This probably happened somewhere in or around San Antonio in the early 1960s. The child’s mother was so frightened by the possible reactions of other customers to the little white boy’s innocent affection that she grabbed her baby and fled the store, abandoning her groceries. So this did not work out so well for her, which is a shame; but I still like my brother’s lack of constraint.) Later Magoo befriended and showed special kindness to a young burn victim, also black, at the hospital where he ultimately lost his life at age ten.

“Retarded” is the word my siblings and I were taught for his condition. At that time the word was not meant offensively; it was merely a useful descriptive term. At the simplest level the word means slow; the musical term “ritardando” comes from the same root.

No one needs to lecture me about the fluid, dynamic nature of language. I know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive linguistics; I know about pejoration and amelioration and how they occur; I know that the definitions of words, as well as spelling and grammar, change over time. I’m well aware that the English we speak today is a far cry from the English of Chaucer’s day and an even farther cry from that of the Beowulf-poet. Even the English of Shakespeare’s plays would be difficult for us to understand if we heard it pronounced as it was when it was penned, and some of Shakespeare’s puns don’t make sense to modern ears because the words have altered. (The English of Shakespeare’s plays and of the 1611 King James Bible, by the way, is properly called Early Modern English, not Old English. Old English is the English of Beowulf and indecipherable to anyone who hasn’t studied it. The English of Chaucer’s day is Middle English. Please don’t say that the King James Bible and the works of the Bard are written in Old English. Just please don’t.)


Old English, FTW.

Pejoration and amelioration are ways in which words alter over time in terms of ethical or moral value. When a word’s meaning becomes more negative, we say that it has pejorated. When it becomes more positive, we say that it has ameliorated. The words nerd and geek have ameliorated wonderfully over my lifetime, and in my opinion this is one of the triumphs of the modern age.

Pejoration, however, is the more common process. Maybe this is because of entropy; I don’t know. When words pejorate badly enough, they become taboo, and we replace them with euphemisms, which over time also pejorate and become taboo in turn. Where we see this process occur most often is with words associated with death and with race or ethnic identity. Undertakers/morticians/funeral directors are constantly updating the words of their trade—though, to paraphrase Thomas Pyles, a loved one in a casket is just as dead as a corpse in a coffin. Likewise, pejoration of ethnic words is a quick business, often occurring in less than a generation’s time. It’s a sad business, as well; witness plucky little Ratbert’s attempt to alter people’s perceptions of him by replacing rat with rattus, only to see the more dignified term become instantly defiled.

Sometimes the reaction against pejoration is overblown. Most of us have scoffed at silly euphemisms contrived by people being overly sensitive or exaggerating their own importance. We ought to resist caving to foolish whims; otherwise the language will lose force, nuance, and clarity. But there’s more to it than that—like showing consideration, and respecting the differences among us, and choosing to use words in a way whose overall effect is to build up rather than tear down. And all that is done from a position of strength.

The issue is similar to the biblical one of meat sacrificed to idols. A first-century Christian who engaged in idol worship prior to his conversion might intellectually know that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat and not inherently evil, but feelings are subjective and don’t always obey intellect. And eating that meat—which technically he is free to do—hurts his conscience. The experience is like that of hearing a song you associate with a bad time in your past. The melody bypasses reason and taps directly into emotional memory, putting you in a funk that might last all day, hampering productivity and throwing a wrench in current relationships. If the association between meat and idol worship is as strong as all that, it’s best to abstain. In some cases, the person doing the eating might be perfectly easy in his conscience but keeping company with others who are less bold in their liberty. Here, again, it’s best to abstain, for the sake of another’s conscience instead of one’s own.

I know we can’t stop the tide of linguistic change. It may well be that a century from now, “retarded” will be just a synonym for “stupid” and its earlier definition will be forgotten. My aim is not to stifle change or hamstring the development of the imagination. I speak to individuals, not the great anonymous tide of English-speaking humanity. We can do better. We can respect each other’s feelings in matters like this. We can be kind.

Doing this sometimes comes at a cost. We may want to use a particular word because it has a punch which a less offensive synonym lacks. Giving it up might involve a genuine loss of power in our written or spoken speech.

I’m not advocating a wholesale emasculation, flattening, or dumbing-down of language into some nicey-nice collection of mealy-mouthed phonemic units that never offend anyone or mean much of anything. Words are tools. Some are soft and light, like dust cloths. Some have edges, like knives. Words with edges are useful but dangerous; they should be respected and kept away from small children. I wouldn’t stand by and let some well-meaning busybody remove all the knives from my house just because they are capable of hurting people. The very quality that makes them dangerous is also what makes them useful. Sometimes you need to cut things, and neither a dust cloth nor even a spatula will serve. Likewise, sometimes words ought to cut. Graft, greed, oppression, sloth, negligence, and perversion ought to be called out—sometimes with direct cutting language, sometimes with oblique slashes of satire, sometimes with hyperbole.

There are few hard-and-fast rules that will work here. Mostly we have to go case by case. But I think there are a few word usages we would do well to eliminate altogether—not because we have to, but of our own free will, in generosity of spirit. A good general guideline is that if my use of a word is likely to hurt an innocent person or erode his dignity in the eyes of others, I should abstain. Inflicting harm, deliberately or carelessly, and then excusing the action by claiming the immunity of liberty, is a poor practice.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

Proverbs 18:21

That’s Not Logic, It’s Just Equivocation

If you’re well acquainted with me or my blog, you know I take words and their meanings very seriously. A new friend recently made my day by calling me a philologist; I suspect I’ve had less favorable epithets uttered behind my back. I’ve been guilty of nailing many an unsuspecting person’s hide to the wall for crimes of equivocation or sloppy usage, and no doubt my tendency to do this is not my most endearing personality trait. But darn it, truth and accuracy matter. Words are the vehicles of rational thought and communication. If someone misunderstands a word’s meaning—or, worse, subtly alters it and then tries to have it both ways—then discourse becomes a train wreck.

In his preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addressed this subject more clearly than I ever could. The long passage is worth quoting in full.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A “nice” meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

People hurl these linguistic monstrosities at us every day. “Everyone’s a winner,” they say. Seriously? Then I guess “winner” is just a synonym for “human being.” Or, “Death doesn’t matter. As long as you keep his memory alive, he hasn’t really gone.” No kidding?! Then where the heck is he? I never forgot him, but I haven’t seen him around in years.

Then there’s this one: “That’s not love, it’s just infatuation.” Teenagers are the target group here. The idea is that you have to reach a certain maturity level before what you think is love is worthy of the name. A Christian might further muddy the water by bringing in the Greek word agape, insisting that the only true love is the disinterested self-sacrificial sort, and ignoring the other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “love” in English Bibles. (And if that be the case, if love doesn’t count until it attains some uber-level of Christlikeness, then God help us all.) Interestingly, it’s only romantic love that’s dealt with this way. I’ve never heard anyone suggest a teenager is incapable of filial or fraternal love.

Why the equivocation? As Lewis says, these people mean well. Maybe they’re trying to guard against youthful rashness, or reacting against our culture’s oversexualization of the very young. But it’s no good avoiding one error by falling into another.

Do young people sometimes use the word “love” carelessly or erroneously? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love. Truth is, people love according to their stature: wisely or foolishly, sacrificially or selfishly, fleetingly or enduringly. But even an imperfect love is still there. It’s wrong to denigrate the emotions of a person of any age by calling them by another name. And age is not the only or best indicator of emotional maturity. Over my years of giving premarital counseling and of just quietly observing folks around me, I’ve seen some who are more ready for the demands of marriage at eighteen than others are at thirty-five. It depends entirely on the individual.

“But who cares?” an impatient reader may ask. “What possible difference could it make which word is used?” I say it makes a big difference. I dislike the protracted childhood that’s become the norm for young adults in our society; we suppress their natural drives, ply them with amusements, then wonder why they implode. I’m not suggesting anything odd, like allowing fourteen-year-olds to marry and buy property. Teenagers need guidance and protection, in some ways even more than young children. But let us at least pay them the compliment of taking them and their emotions seriously.