Friday, June 24, 2011

In Defense of Language

by Pete Morin

This past week, Boston’s illustrious Mayor, Thomas M. (“Mumbles”) Menino, in his inimitable high dudgeon, called upon the Nike company to cease its sale of tee shirts that, he said, condone the use of drugs.

The tee shirt has the word “dope” printed in large red letters, above a prescription pill vial, out of which spilled skateboards and snowboards. It is part of Nike’s campaign to celebrate vigorous outdoor physical activity:

"These T-shirts are part of an action sports campaign, featuring marquee athletes using commonly used and accepted expressions for performance at the highest level of their sport, be it surfing, skateboarding or BMX.”

Menino—an infamously dull-witted fellow who rarely completes a sentence without a malaprop—isn’t buying this clever marketing. He thinks the campaign is “outrageous,” and he’s calling on the company to cease and desist.

“Dope” is a versatile word, for 4 letters. Depending on its context, it can mean any number of things. From the Dictionary of American Slang


a stupid person. :  That dope has done it again!
drugs in general; marijuana. :  How much dope do you do in a week anyway?
news; information; scuttlebutt. :  I got some dope on the tavern fire if you want to hear it.
best; most excellent. :  We had a great time there. It was dope and dudical.

I love that—“dudical.”

It can also be used in a verb phrase, dope out, to mean (a) to figure out; calculate; devise: to dope out a plan; (b) to deduce or infer from available information: to dope out a solution to a problem.

But for Menino, there is only one meaning conveyed—or understood—those nefarious substances that are the bane of the inner city streets.

A while back, I posted about a kerfuffle involving a blog participant’s use of the phrase “tits up,” to mean—as was perfectly obvious in context—a business failure.

This was met by a chorus of outrage from some women who were offended by the slang use of their cherished body parts to convey the intended, and understood, meaning. That men have tits didn’t matter. If it is capable of offending someone (regardless of its intended meaning), it needs to go. This notion goes well beyond the venue of online chats.

As writers, while we are not constrained to leave our ideologies on the stoop, I submit that we have a superior fidelity to the meaning of language. Our task is to use words to convey thoughts and images as perfect and true to our intent as our language will permit (and even make up our own words, if that’s what works). This is not an obligation that ought to be confined to the work-in-progress. We do not sweat out perfect prose in fiction, punch a clock, and then slouch to the misuse of nouns—or too their misinterpretation, whether we are the speaker or listener. When we see or hear a word with multiple meanings, we don’t apply one that is obviously unintended.

What is at stake here is something quite sinister—something George Orwell portrayed in a rather iconic masterpiece. That is the risk that someone else is going to tell you what your words mean, or worse yet, whether you can say them at all, and they might even spy on you to do it (that last link is frighteningly replete with such instances). Someone else is going to determine that your speech has racist intent. Or that you are a sexist.

Or that you are promoting drug use.

There is nothing relative about language. Words have their etymology. Used with care and clarity, they convey a specific, intended meaning. Where they are misinterpreted to mean something clearly unintended, it is not the fault of the speaker.

As you slave over your manuscript tonight after the children are in bed, consider how difficult your task would be if you had to examine each of words to insure that they were not capable of being misinterpreted by someone with another agenda—one having nothing to do with truth.

[I am glad that—to date—Nike is sticking to its guns (oh my, how inappropriate a metaphor!) on this. For my part, I think the campaign is anti-drug. Get high on life; surfing, snowboarding and surfing are our drug of choice, etc.]


Richard said...

Good post. Some people are very literal and narrow minded in their approach to life. It takes work to grow out of that. Some people just can't do it.

Matt Sinclair said...

Reminds me of when Hillary Clinton used the word "niggardly" properly and in context and received all sorts of holy hell for it. Never mind that the word has nothing to do with a person's skin color or that it's derived from a Scandanavian term for miserly. As writers we must always be mindful not only of how language can be used but abused. And call "bullshit" when someone foists an attack on speech.

JeffO said...

Wasn't there also a hoo-haw over reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle"? I think there might have been.

There are some people who seem to want to be offended. They look for every opportunity to get their 'panties in a wad' (uh oh, can I type that?). It's a knee-jerk reaction, and is indicative of people not taking time to think about what they're seeing and reading. At first glance? Yes, maybe it looks like those shirts are promoting drug use (especially the "Get High" one), but look again, look deeper, and really think about it.

Matt Sinclair said...

I live in the NYC area and after 9/11 a lot of otherwise not-so-sensitive people became quite raw. One friend who is a police officer was quite upset that one of the sites where debris from the WTC was taken was to Fresh Kills on Staten Island. Of course, the name has nothing to do with killing and even less with the killing that occurred on 9/11. The Dutch word "kille" means riverbed.

petemorin said...

Matt - that's what I'm doing with this post! Calling bullshit!

Matt Sinclair said...

Yup. And doing it well, too.

RSMellette said...

There can also be incredibly stupid formations of new words that, I think, dumb down the general population.

The first time I heard "Organic Salad" I laughed my ass off. People looked at me like I was the idiot, but I said, "as opposed to what? INorganic salad?"

But my listeners didn't get it. Okay, sure, fine - organic now also means "made without pesticides" but many pesticides are themselves organic, like nicotine or arsenic.

Couldn't we have called them "pesticide free salads"?

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! It always makes me laugh when people go into an uproar ... and they're wrong. Unfortunately some of them never realize it! :)

Leslie Rose said...

Whew boy, aren't there more important things to worry about in the world besides the word dope. Somebody has too much time on their hands.

Rebecca Kiel said...

I could never write if I tied myself to the fear of what would people think. Personally wouldn't wear a shirt that said "Dope" but there is always going to be someone who dislikes my book, my shoes, you name it. My job is to keep going in the most genuine, artistic way I can.

petemorin said...

Thanks for your comments, Leslie and Rebecca!

Yeah, too much time, not enough humor.

Rebecca, as a psychoanalyst, you must have a lot of fun figuring out why people misuse their words!

Jean Oram said...

I think word choice comes down to the argument of audience again. Who does Nike want to appeal to: the 45-year-old man or a teenager.

With that shirt--teenagers. I think they did a dope job, man.


petemorin said...

Now that's the straight dope.