After writing "Language Matters" on March 23, I thought of some additional highly misleading (yet largely unquestioned) phrases that I felt merited another blog-post. "Newspeak" definitely didn't end in 1984! If any of you reading this can think of other examples, please feel free to comment!

In the 1990s, we had "ethnic cleansing" used to justify some barbaric actions that were nowhere remotely related to cleanliness or godliness.

In the context of food and diet, "cleanse" is often used to describe some fad diet or perhaps fad-fast where you eat only orange foods on Tuesdays and Thursdays, blue foods on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and purple foods on Saturdays and Sundays. Well, not quite, but to me it seems about on that level of logic. Terms like "light" and "all-natural" are also used a lot and don't really mean much. Even a term like "organic" can be pretty confusing unless you have a thorough knowledge of the food industry. And none of those terms necessarily means that the food product is tastier or better for you.

But here's my nomination for the worst phrase of 2014 (and possibly 2015): "herd immunity". It's generally used by doctors, scientists and other concerned citizens to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated. You hear things like "We need a 95% vaccination rate in order to achieve herd immunity for measles." I hate that expression!

I hasten to add that I definitely support the pro-vaccination lobby, at least for the very serious diseases and where the vaccines are clearly effective. And I would include measles (at least the red measles, or rougeola) as a serious disease - I was very sick with it as a child, before the vaccine was developed.

Pro-vaxers are amongst the first to admit that you're not likely to get the vaccine-hesitant folks on side by bombarding them with all kinds of facts and statistics. A few key facts or statistics, maybe. But you're aiming at their hearts more than their heads, the fact that they love their children and want what's best for them.

"Herd immunity" does indeed pack an emotional punch - but I don't think it's the one we want. In effect, we're likening people's children to cattle! And while I don't want to minimize the genuine affection that farmers may have for their livestock (maybe even those that are ultimately destined for the dinner table), it's hardly the same thing as the relationship between human parents and their children. It conjures up images of all your children being killed off if one of them comes down with foot-and-mouth, brucellosis or BSE, just as a herd of cattle might all be slaughtered if one cow has (or even is merely suspected of having) one of those diseases! Are scare tactics going to sway people in favour of immunization or just drive them underground to avoid the vaccination police? Most likely the latter, I think.

It would be better to use a phrase like "group immunity", "crowd immunity", "population immunity" or even the cornily poetic "community immunity". Or we could say something like "general immunity" or "mass immunity". If we want to indulge in a little hyperbole to put an even more positive spin on things, we might even dare to say "universal immunity".

But "herd immunity" is definitely one of those phrases that deserves to be sent straight to the slaughterhouse!
I think we're all familiar with the way usage shifts over time in the interests of political correctness. Words which at one time were not considered pejorative, like "idiot", "imbecile", "moron" and "retarded", or any number of words denoting other disabilities, or race, gender or ethnicity, are now taboo. But what I find much more insidious is the number of words and turns of phrase that we casually drop into everyday speech and even written communication, without ever questioning - nor causing others to question - what they imply.

For instance: we regularly trivialize, even normalize domestic violence when we refer to it as a "crime of passion". Another misused word is "schizophrenic", as in "I think you have to be a bit schizophrenic to do this work" (meaning that you have to be able to keep your mind on two or three things simultaneously) or "I have kind of a schizophrenic attitude towards doctor-assisted suicide" (meaning that your views on the issue seem to contradict each other, or you feel conflicted about it). Of course, schizophrenia is a very serious illness and not the same thing as having multiple personalities. Nor is it usually a laughing matter, although I'm not necessarily opposed to black humour. Sometimes, in fact, it may be put to good use, as in the "Cracking up the capital" campaign. But that's actually raising awareness about a serious social and psychological problem, as opposed to glossing over or minimizing the problem and suggesting, albeit unintentionally, that it's not really much of a problem in the first place.

Then there's the whole computer-related lingo. The Internet as the "information highway"? Surely you don't build a highway until enough people have cars or other relatively high-speed vehicles to drive on it. Are WE the cars? Are our computers the cars? Are we self-driving cars or would those be the search engines, net crawlers, "bots" and so on? The term "word processing" was coined in the early days of desktop computing. But is it really the words themselves that we or our computer is processing? Seems to me it's at a rather more macro level than that. I guess we are indeed at some level processing text, though of course "texting" means something else again. Is this kind of misnomer damaging in the same way as the examples I mentioned in the paragraph above? In some ways, I would say yes. The moment we talk about automated or computerized ANYTHING - two examples I can think of being translation and cataloguing - we are minimizing the intellectual, emotional and physical contributions (I almost wrote "input") of the human at the expense of the primarily mindless, though undeniably often useful, activity of the machine.

When it comes to proper names, of course, there's often not much that can be done. I've been bothered by some time for the word or acronym "Isis" used to refer to a radical Islam group as opposed to the magical ancient Egyptian mother-goddess. But the first time I heard of a human by that name (I did once know a cat named Isis) was this morning on the radio when I learned that some unfortunate young lady named Isis had been expelled from Facebook.

There's also the question of identical-looking (and sometimes identical-sounding) words that have vastly different meanings depending on what language you're using. The "faux amis" in French. Or words like "Mist" which in English has somewhat poetic or gothic connotations but in German means "manure". During my university years, as part of a German exam, we were required to translate a short passage from English to German without using a dictionary. One of the words in it was "cancer" which I had learned but somehow forgotten in the stress of the exam. So I wrote "Kanzer" and then looked up the proper translation after the exam was over. For years thereafter, I couldn't watch Dallas on TV without thinking of Ray Krebs as "Mr. Cancer" - but I don't suppose I'll ever forget the German word for cancer!



October 2017



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