I love language. I was a lucky, blessed toddler whose parents read to her on a regular basis. I love the way words feel and move, how they leave the body on a breath, how they spill out on a page, each with a unique height and depth and cadence. That legacy of warm, loving embraces and laughter informs even the hard words I learned later, even the nasty awful ones. I love words, so today I’m indulging in a eulogy to socially-freighted vocabulary.
Look at these wonderful words: articulate, elite. entitled, intellectual, privileged.1, 2
Each one has rolled in enough sociological mud to be exiled to the verbal woodshed forever. They were once complimentary. They should be positives as well as adjectives. They aren’t. I wish they were, but if wishes were horses, I would have a huge hay bill to pay off. Huge.
A short digression into personal history. My first experience with the perils of vocabulary came at age ten. I was at sleep-away summer camp, babbling away with my tent-mates (they liked me! we read the same books!) at dinner. Our unit counselor did not approve of us. At some point, I described someone’s behavior as animated. She proceeded–loudly and at length–to mock me in front of the entire camp for thinking I was so smart when I didn’t even know that animated meant cartoons.
I was smart. I didn’t argue with someone who had ultimate authority over me for five more days. It hurt like being flayed alive, and I still carry the conversational scars. I can’t speak my mind with passion and eloquence unless I am too enraged to remember that pain. When I am angry, however, I become viciously articulate, and the people I admire most are those who who speak and write with skill and artful expertise in any circumstances.
The subtext of dismantling or constructing, the lengthy assault of syllables…oh, I miss that word. Why can’t I use articulate to describe someone who has the ability to swing words as weapons or lift an audience to delight with the power of their vocabulary? It is magic, and a wonder to behold. Racist bigots stole one of my favorite compliments to use as a backhanded swipe at people of color. Awful racist bigots.
Of course, admitting to a love of articulate people leaves me open to accusations of elitism. To which I say, YUP. What of it? I aspire to excellence. I admire those who achieve it. When did being a member of an elite become a bad thing? When did it become a pejorative? Ditto for intellectual. These words should be good things, but they’re not these days, and I miss them. I’mma just gonna leave this Isaac Asimov quote here and move on.
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”
Next, let’s take a look at entitlement. What the hell happened to this innocent little word? Look at the root form. En-title. It’s a transitive verb. It isn’t a state or a condition, it’s an action. It’s something someone does to someone. No one gets to be entitled without someone entitling them. Except now. Now its an insult to fling at people who used to get accused of being uppity and not paying their dues. Uh-huh. The moment it became an adjective, it was sullied and lost to use by anyone but resentful grouches who feel threatened by any demographic that doesn’t appreciate their precious status quo.
Speaking of status quo, I’ll wrap up with privilege. The word is a tool of intellectual (!) discourse. There, its nuanced meaning of (more or less) a constellation of advantages afforded to one group but not others has an important place. Race, sex, orientation, age, income, and ability do skew perspective. All the same, I miss being able to say “It’s been a privilege to meet/work with/know …” It’s too heavy a word for the lightweight use as a compliment now. Also, buzzwords make me twitch.
I was first trained out of the naive, ignorant use of articulate, and rightfully so. Years later now, I can appreciate how gently the correction was offered. At the time it came as a painful shock, and I resented it for a long time. Grief hits like that sometimes: anger first, before acceptance. The other words have fallen away over the last decade, casualties, one by one, of the culture wars that I think are going to get much worse before they get better.
That’s it. Those are the five words I miss most. All done. IF you were expecting deep social relevance or insight … wrong blog, sorry. This is my self-space. The World Revolves Around Boring Ol’ Me. If you wanted serious personal revelations or rants about writing, go back a few posts. Or come back another time. I’m sure I’ll rant again soon.
Note 1: I’m using alphabetical order, for lack of any other objective ranking.
Note 2: there are many more than five words that qualify, but these are the ones that came to mind without hesitation. These are my favorites among the filthy, sticky, dirty collection of oldie-moldy well-loved Problematic Words