The Value of Words

Miscellaneous musings on our culture’s spoken and written language.

Meaningless Words

Facebook invited us to toss words into the dust bin when they created those cute little emoticons or emojis. Now, let me say from the get-go that I use those cute little emojis. I am a user. But what do they really mean? Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry. The words—and underlying concepts—are virtually meaningless.

Hang onto your britches and let me explain. FB invites us to express supposed emotions with a single symbol, to save us the time and mental effort involved in using vocabulary to formulate sentences to express thoughtful replies. No need to do that when we can express displeasure by inserting an angry-face emoticon, or astonishment with a wow-face emoticon—when we may not feel anything like true anger or astonishment, in which case we’re conveying pseudo emotions. They’re not real.

Sometimes the feelings involved are deep and genuine—I’m not suggesting we’re all phonies on social media (but I think a lot of us are a lot more unreal there than we care to admit). It’s just that it’s too easy to indicate that we “like” something, when what we really mean is that we acknowledge that we’ve seen it—or that we “love” something when what we actually mean is that we really like it or that something tugs on our heartstrings—not that we literally love it. In the same way that words like awesome and amazing have become meaningless through casual overuse, love is now almost a throwaway word with no meaning. We love everything and everyone from our spouses to our next-door neighbor’s new welcome mat.

Lazy Words

Texting handsWe all know how the world of text messaging has practically abolished literate written communication for a lot of us. “How r u? Hope ur better.” “Thx im good.” Communication practices birthed by the earliest texting technology have somehow carried over into the improved smart-phone technology, and yet not only do many of us still use the “simplified” language in texts, we even use it in social media posts and in emails. An argument in its favor is that it’s simpler, quicker, and easier, and that one’s recipients can still decipher it. I get that. I studied human communication and general semantics in both undergraduate and graduate school and have read far more popular and scholarly literature on the topic over the years than I care to admit (a fact which reveals that I have no life). But I digress.

My point is that literate written communication is under attack. Okay, perhaps that’s too strong as it smacks of conspiracy theories and all that silliness. Literate written communication (and oral communication, for that matter) is in serious retrograde. Word meanings are dissolving into white noise and sentence construction is nearly a lost art. For example, compare the writing of a typical high school graduate today to that of a typical farm boy or girl with basic grammar school education during the Civil War era. Compare the clarity and depth of thought as articulated through words and syntax. It’s interesting.

Inflammatory Words

FlamesOur culture undervalues words by rendering them meaningless—especially on social media. But our culture contradicts itself by placing a much higher value on certain words than they deserve. Consider the words “outrage” and “offended.” See how the media uses these words—how they cue us, the supposedly mindless sheep of the general public, on what to be offended about, to be “outraged” over. People aren’t miffed, annoyed, upset, peeved, concerned, or even just angry anymore. Now they are outraged. Consider the recent controversy over Confederate statues. The media whipped up that frenzy to a hot flame, coaching us to feel offense and outrage about something that virtually no one had given a rat’s behind about.

The same is true about almost everything today’s protest “industry” gets worked up about. When you run an industry, you do your part to ensure its perpetuation through advertising and through whatever you can do to let the public know how much they “need” whatever it is you’re selling. The same is true of the protest industry, which regularly enlists the mainstream media and social media to artificially inflate the importance of certain words and images in order to inflame our passions. There is a well-known word for that: propaganda.

Taboo Words

Taboo WordsToday, young people are taught from an early age to be careful how they use certain words about certain subjects or people, because those words hurt people. That’s a good thing. We’ve improved as a society in that regard since my youth in the 1960s, when, for example, it was still mostly socially acceptable to use off-color terms for various ethnicities, the physically and mentally handicapped, and those of different sexual orientations. Ironically, society thought it okay to use those terms in everyday life but totally taboo to use any curse word on television, in movies, in school, or in mixed company.

Today those taboos have been almost reversed. You mustn’t disparage a person’s identity (a good thing), but now you can curse away . . . like the guy sitting at the next table at the restaurant last week, whose every third word spoken to his buddies was the F-word. He rattled it off to modify every noun and most verbs in every sentence, like a verbal Gatling gun firing F-bombs. He wasn’t whispering, and he didn’t care how many women, children, men, or Martians overheard him. It was just a normal part of his (vastly limited) everyday vocabulary.

That’s okay nowadays, I’m told. But please, PLEASE don’t dare call a Norwegian a Norsky.[1]


[1] I am a Norsky, so I suppose I can say that without being taken to task over it. Or can I?

© 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, classical music aficionado, appreciator of classic rock 'n' roll and classic movies, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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