Words Past Their Sell Dates

Managing the language of critical change

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by Mike Meyer

I think it is time to lay some words to rest. This should not be censorship but a general agreement that words, particularly certain old ones, become unable to carry the weight of their own history. They have clearly exceeded their sell by date. Removing them is then an act in support of public health.

There is a distinction that must be made although it is, as most things are now, complex. We need to retire some problematic words that are more trouble than they are worth but that is, again, distinct from forbidding words, i.e., censoring them.

This is completely entangled in ideology, propaganda, censorship, and religion. The only history of retiring words that we have has been authoritarian efforts to remove the ability to talk about things that made the regime look bad.

In the digital age the Chinese government has been most active in blocking any writing with any of its current list of forbidden words. For the most part this doesn’t mean much simply because most people don’t notice. When they do notice, the continuously adaptive nature of human language, inspires the creation of new words, or new meanings for old words, that solve the problem. This is a spur to linguistic evolution.

Because of the nature of human language the direct censorship of words is a war that can never be won. Yes, it can suppress the instigation of sudden mass movements against government policies but it cannot stop them if the issues are perceived to be big enough. The disaster that the PRC has going in Hong Kong is indicative of what can happen when you, mindlessly, trigger enough people.

The most self destructive action of a government is now to be tone deaf to the rapidly changing citizen discussion. We live by words and our words are available to everyone far faster than automated flagging systems can act.

This is, ultimately, the failure of authoritarian systems. They are permanently at war with the most innovative, creative, and articulate segment of their population. If they keep this under control a balance can be achieved just as it must be achieved in any type of large political entity. But that is a point for a future discussion.

We have been evolving an awareness of language in post industrial societies that recognizes the need for social adjustment by eliminating language burdened with past abuse and social distortions. This has come a long way and, despite background shouts of outrage, from traditionalists and authoritarians, has shifted our social structures in a positive way. The very existence of manufactured accusations of political correctness shows the power and importance of our fast evolving communication.

This evolves by education on the problems of words and past usage but mostly through self adjustment as the changes are perceived as beneficial to society. Those who are slow to adjust quickly mark themselves as such and come under increasing pressure to change usage. If they do not change their own usage they come to accept that others have and that is the first stage of acceptance.

Most of the problem here is the lack of a formal social process to focus the discussion on needed changes. That process is still the annual updating of English (and other language) dictionaries with English being the final acceptance, if not approval. We do need a way to support suggestion and discussion to make this work more effectively.

As with everything human now our media are the reflection of our changing universe. People who write are professionally tuned to nuances of language and the process of change. Much of our past conservatism was actually parochialism based on isolated language. That is disappearing as diversity and constant interaction online is changing human society to be far more sensitive and while evolving at ever faster rates.

Broad usage of new grammatical forms including the elimination of problem words is moving along very briskly. It’s just that we are in times of major paradigmatic change and there is a lot to do to make our working language conducive to the changes that must be made in human society to eliminate bigotry and violence as well as change our organization and economics to allow us to survive in the age of climate and planetary crisis.

An excellent example of this working is the steady removal of gender in English to allow for the range of diversity in human sexuality. We are learning to be sensitive to this by using third person genderless pronouns unless a preference is expressed. This is still an awkward work around stage until we manage to adapt genderless second person pronouns. But these are by no means necessary as many languages do not have them.

At the mundane working level of daily language we are in process of change. But we need to expand this to begin retiring words that have become overburdened with meanings and, as a result, often weaponized. Centuries of conflict, changing meanings, and the use of words as accusations and denials makes them less and less useful as components of open communication.

Such words become dangerous and become avoided in normal conversation. But this needs to be part of a meta conversation that we have regularly.

Words past their date:

God — This word needs to be retired as it is impossible to use without insulting or enraging someone. The gods all disappeared ages ago after centuries of destruction and oppression. This is primarily an English word but as, still, the lead planetary language it ends being used almost exclusively as a weapon. Anyone who starts saying the word is usually throwing a bomb at someone or denouncing a person or group.

If you want to talk about the concept or the historical evolution of divinities that word, divinities, works very well and, though also a derivative of ‘god’ in Latin does not carry the awful weight of ‘god’ in English. The various other Romance version of Dios, Deus, etc. should also be retired but I’m mostly concerned with English for the trouble it causes.

Even the people struggling to redefine and salvage religion (see below) are hampered by the word ‘god’. The spiritual understanding of our universe guided by science but extends that to the mysterious, not yet known, and magical. It embodies all existence and our complete involvement while defining the nature of our agency and resulting responsibility in this universe.

Retiring the word ‘god’ would also include the rather bizarre pronunciations that have been used by some of the more problematic religionists. These usually include additional syllables added in to a very basic one syllable word. That always seemed to me to be an attempt to take an already overdetermined word and make it even more deformed.

Religion — Another word that is an ever growing problem. This one is a little harder to get rid of as it describes a whole range of extant systems. Rather than being retired, perhaps it should be marked for only limited and careful use. Religions have been in decline for centuries and are fading quickly in post industrial cultures now helped along by the nasty use of the other word above.

Moving the word religion out of the way would, I think, facilitate the evolution of personal spiritual systems that are becoming the norm. While religion carries an incredible burden of brutal oppression, slavery, and death, spiritual systems tend to be based on philosophies that are focused on successful living and centering. The key is moving to a more neutral and open terminology.

Unlike the current state of waiting for words to fade and die slowly on their own maintaining a permanent conversation on teh status of our words would be a proactive process of speeding change that is necessary for human well being. We could also take this a step farther and anticipate words that are becoming a problem.

These can then include a number of words that are now understood to be actively involved in the death of our planet via atmospheric destruction. We are facing massive social, economic, and political change so this could begin to clear the decks for the what needs to happen.

Sovereignty — In its present form this word is inappropriate for human civilization on one planet. The planet could have sovereignty but no component of that planet should claim such a concept as it would allow the implementation of further planet destroying policies and actions. We can see that now with people gaining power such as Trump in the US advocating carbon production or Bolasorio in Brazil destroying the Amazonian rain forests.

Obviously there are many words that represent concepts that are no longer viable or are now becoming recognized as dangerous to life and our planet. We should begin the discussion on retiring them. This would effectively mark these words as problems that must be considered and that is the fist step to managing the language of change that we need.

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Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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