Monday, November 12, 2001

How We Use Language

We know how readily our language acquires new words and new meanings for old words. This article by Ken Ringle of the Washington Post enumerates a fresh batch of coinages spawned by the current "war" in which we find ourselves.

Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front (

As I read this, I recalled dealing as a parent with a youngster who has just discovered the pain of losing a friend to a sudden fatal illness. On the one hand, I wanted to acknowledge the distress this loss has caused him. On the other hand, I knew I had to help him put the loss into perspective, to place it accurately in the full range of possible losses.

The author of this article quotes a language authority as saying "No term has yet been coined to convey even the scope of what happened on Sept. 11, much less the horror." I wonder if people in Nagasaki or Bhopal or Rwanda would agree with that. Or do we as a nation need a loving parent or leader to remind us that, while our hearts will hurt for a long time over this loss, we have not suffered something outside the imaginable range of losses, that others in the world have suffered similar tragedies or even much greater.

In my view, perspective doesn't diminish the personal, it ratifies and normalizes it. A childish person may want to hear a justification for anger and revenge. An adult wants the information that makes it possible to replace such emotions with an improved sense of humanity.

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