Words, Terms & Exasperation

Words, and specifically how they are used, is a topic of amusement in our pages; and occasionally a topic of exasperation (thanks to Sarah M. Brownsberger and The Hedgehog Review):

Stop the Term-Creation Meaning-Kidnap!

When language became searchable.

On our recent return to the United States after a decade away in our other language, my family was struck by a change in American English. The parts of speech were sliding around. Nouns became verbs, verbs became nouns, and both became passive and adjectival. This confused us. If someone sent a text message that read, “I’ve been hammocked on a treed hill,” should we send help? Was getting hammocked like getting jacked? And what dog could tree a hill?

It was “okay” to twist usage; people “got it.” If a moisturizer ad read, “WRINKLE RESULTS IN ONE WEEK!” only a low-value consumer would wonder where on her face the wrinkle would appear.

Process was chic; agency was uncomfortable. Things happened automatically even when we did them. We no longer followed trends; trends simply trended. We didn’t take care of ourselves; we engaged in self-care. We couldn’t check ourselves in, but we could use self check-in. We didn’t obey public health orders; we were in lockdown.

As a family from two countries, we were hyphenated Americans. This sounded like heart trouble. We flew to a non-towered airport, self-concealed in a low-rise urban area, and groaned over the health-care options in our new-employee on-boarding pre-package.

We wondered: Were we condensing phrases to terms because we were typing with our thumbs? Had we come to expect listeners and readers to autocomplete and fill in syntax? Had work jargon saturated private life because Americans worked such long hours? Had a generation told by daycare providers that they were good toy-picker-uppers grown up to make a norm of behaviorist verbing? Had the passive constructions by which one avoids assigning blame (or credit) in the workplace made naming who did what seem rude?

Or did sounding technical have a political flavor? Did it announce, “I believe that science is real,” as some lawn signs in our new neighborhood did, along with other tenets of what apparently was a new, progressive Nicene Creed?

Or were people just preening, using pseudoterms to sound savvy?

What did talking like this do?

If your mom exclaims, “Oh, you picked up all your toys!” you have pleased your mom. If your mom says, “You are a good toy-picker-upper,” it means that your performance met standards. If you have thin hair, it means you don’t have thick hair. If you are follically impaired, you have a hair disability. A toy-picker-upper is an economic phenomenon, and a follically impaired scalp a medical one. Neither is personal.

Self-words used to be reflexive. What we self-did, we did on our own. We applied ourselves to a task. We self-applied ointment. Self-regard was how we saw ourselves. Now, to self-apply means to use an online application. Why do we self-apply online but simply apply on paper? The “self” comes into play when we consent to use an automated process from a third party.

That we may lack choice in the matter is elided, along with the interaction that the process replaces. When we self-do something now, we often take on a task that someone used to get paid for. Conversely, in the case of pejorative self-words like self-treatment, we usurp a task that professionals claim the right to supervise, for a fee. Or, like self-rising flour or self-sealing envelopes, we simply operate, or fail to operate, according to someone else’s design. When we self-comply, self-manage, or self-monitor, we bow to rules imposed by management in entities that we often cannot name. Our agency is restricted to compliance. Somebody, somewhere, as a matter of policy, is presenting compulsion as choice.

Detached from agency, the meanings of new terms drift. Nonprofit organizations alert supporters to “donation opportunities,” though “a chance to give” has half the syllables. Now, “donation opportunity” may also mean the organization’s chance to land a gift from a donor. From there, the donors themselves become “donation opportunities.” A chance to be good ends up as a sticky note on your back.

Read the whole essay here.

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