As editor-in-chief, I have the opportunity to read more than 20 student-written articles per week. We are an intelligent, academically driven student body, yet I dedicate countless hours wading through filler-word hell, where I encounter the regular devils: “however,” “passionate,” “powerful,” “interesting” and “unique.” After hour 12 on a Sunday, when my makeup is smudged, when my hair has gone up then down then up then down, these filler words deflate me. Yet, while platitudes muddle our ideas, weaken our arguments and make me cranky, they are not our most perilous linguistic weapons.
As George Orwell warned in his brilliant essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes …” I believe it is fair to say within the past few months we have witnessed a linguistic decline. And I’m not just referencing Trump’s casual use of “pussy.” Language is a weapon; it excludes or it unites. The vagueness of the term “great” within a political slogan allows for dangerous division —those who are included in this vision of a “great” America and those who are not. We must choose our words carefully and with forethought.
Though we fall into the cliché quagmire sometimes, we nerds at The Weekly spend hours debating when to use quotation marks, trigger warnings or capitalization. This may seem silly, but it is not. When we were working on our first issue last semester (Fall 2016) while covering the 9/11 memorial incident, we had lengthy discussions about whether to use “vandal” or “protester” in describing the individuals who pulled the flags out of the quad. We decided to use “protester,” because we felt that it created space for the reader to make their own decisions about the individuals’ actions. This process is important, even if we do not always make the correct decision.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states (in its strong form) that our language shapes the way we perceive the world. In the face of this theory, our linguistic laziness —throwaway words, “isms” and buzzwords — becomes monumental.
Let us zoom out beyond Occidental and consider what “great” means within the slogan “Make America Great Again.” I had a “great” sandwich for lunch because my dad recently sent me my favorite hot sauce in the mail, but when it comes to America, “greatness” becomes more complex. The possible interpretations are “tremendous” (in the words of our president), but ultimately unclear.
There are countless examples of linguistic manipulation. The term “Alt-right” — which sounds like a boy band or punny grocery store — ingeniously allows for neo-nazis to become normalized. Steve Bannon’s labeling of “the media” as the opposition party disregards the nuances within the field of technological communication. Bannon demonizes entire constituents of people under the blanket term “the media,” when in reality NPR, The Washington Post, Fox News, among others all report news under different codes of conduct and with nuanced missions in mind.
I challenge us to become more specific with our words. Choose carefully. Pick your words like you pick your MP avocados — with care and with purpose. For us at The Weekly — who hope to be a platform for intelligent, well-thought-out discourse for every reader, contributor and internet troll — word-choosing is a serious job.