That, of course, means that I am in complete agreement with Albus Dumbledore when he said that; “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” To me, at least, this isn’t so much a neat quote, as an obvious truth. And, it does not require that one be a wizard in order to follow its advice. Having spent my life in the study and practice of theatre (an obviously word-based form of art), how could I not think that language is, for all intents and purposes, magic?
Unfortunately, we seem to be living through a time in which language has been significantly devalued. I suspect that this is probably due, at least in part, to the popularity and use of Twitter, and other “social media” systems which have encouraged radical abbreviations, elimination of characters within words, lack of punctuation, etc. However, I also suspect that we have devalued the intelligent and creative use of language in our educational system because it is difficult to evaluate on a numerical scale (as if putting a number on something as an evaluation is ever really meaningful). I never found that number grades were particularly meaningful except in those rare cases where the only thing of importance could be evaluated on a truly binary scale (right-wrong, true-false, etc.) Is that really an effective process for evaluating education? Or, is it simply a way of “keeping score,” so we know who conforms the best? I was always much more interested in having my students become useful, productive, educated adults than I was in exactly how they would earn a living. Perhaps as a result, I have former students who have gone on to work in various aspects of theatre, but also as teachers, lawyers, parents, and all sorts of fields. I consider all of them to all be of value, and I’m proud to think I may have contributed to my former students’ success. To me, that success was always bound up in the educated use of language.
I find it somewhat sad that so many people either don’t know when they aren’t using the language effectively, or don’t seem to know or care. A couple of minor examples: I keep hearing the term “forecasted” being used on television, especially local television, but national, as well. Now, I was taught that the use of the term “forecast” was perfectly acceptable as a past tense; as in, “Snow was forecast (not forecasted), but didn’t develop.” I won’t even mention the form, “Rain has been forecasted.”, as too terrible for polite society.
It was common for folks on the local news here in the Omaha area to refer to the local area as “the Metro” not so long ago (I’ve lived here less than four and one half years), but now it’s not uncommon for them just to say “Metro,” as if the word “the” takes too much time during their news/weather broadcasts. And, I think it's dumb to say, for example, "I live in Metro."
I’ve also noticed that several news/weather broadcasters seem to have acquired a habit of using rather inverted and overly-complicated forms of expression along the lines of: “The stock market will climb, if not stay the same.” I was always taught that it made more sense to say, for example: “The stock market will stay the same, if not climb.”, as the “if not” refers to the possibility of a change, rather than the possibility of none. The current usage just seems quite awkward and nonsensical, at least to me.
Of course, advertising provides many possible examples of sloppy, silly, or even just stupid, language usage. Now, language has always been used by advertisers in an attempt to be “cute,” I guess, but only sometimes successfully. I don’t find it particularly amusing when the resulting usage is just stupid or insulting, as in the recent ads for Chevrolet which featured “Real People, Not Actors.” My first thought (as a theatre person, I suppose) was that actors ARE, of course, people. Then, it occurred to me that, if Chevy paid these people to serve as spokespeople, gave them “lines,” or even just encouragement to praise the product being promoted (I would include editing to achieve this effect), then these “real people” are, in fact, real actors. Certainly, if they ever appear in another ad, SAG-AFTRA (or whichever union is appropriate) would very much like for them to become union members, and the production unions might very well support this idea. By the way, I was, extremely amused when Progressive Insurance started running an ad (maybe more than one) which featured “Real actors, not people.”
Still, advertising has always done dumb things with language, although there are examples of what seem to me to be really clever use, as well. I do think that advertising, generally, tends to come down more on the side of annoying, at least in their use of language, than the opposite, however. A recent ad which I have found of particular annoyance is the one for an app called “SmartNews.” Their “catch line” is: “I was only getting news that I agreed with.” So, they seem to be saying, getting this product, where theydecide what ideas to feature and promote is supposed to make sure that I get all of the truly important stuff that I’m incapable of finding, or paying attention to, by myself. I confess that I do want to know how this app is going to force me to pay attention to stuff which I don’t “agree with?” Because it would be good for me? Personally, I select news stories online because they strike me as being of interest to me. How this app is going to make me pay attention to the “news” I don’tfind interesting is beyond me. And, it strikes me as highly improbable that it would, in fact, have much impact on what I pay attention to. I confess that I haven’t explored this app, but it doesn’t appear to be all that different from a variety of other internet news sources which try to cover the broad spectrum of stuff out there in Internetland.
Of course, I have always tried to make a distinction between NEWS and COMMENTARY. I know it must seem terribly old-fashioned of me, but I’ve always considered that basic information (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) was what the news was all about! That’s what I was taught in in my Sixth Grade English class, where we produced our elementary school newspaper (published two or three times a year, as I remember it). Then, when I was a Junior in High School, I took the Journalism/English class and worked on the bi-weekly Evanstonianduring my Senior year, as well. Again, “the five W’s and an H” were emphasized as what constituted news.
Most of what is available to us on the so-called news channels and feeds is, in fact, commentary. This is all of those “talking heads” (or other forms) telling us what THEY want us to think the facts mean. Obviously, the most important thing to them is that we accept them as sources of the “correct” sort of thinking. The reality is, however, that this isn’t news, it’s interpretation. Like most people, I do pay some attention to those commentators whom I find seem to make sense and seem to offer an established level of expertise regarding the subject at hand, but I try to remain aware of the fact that what they say isn’t really the “news,” it’s their take on the news and that they very well may (often do) have some sort of agenda of their own, be it a book they’ve written, a magazine they edit, a reputation to establish, their network owner’s political stance, etc. I take criticism of theatre with several grains of salt, why should I accept political opinion without examination?
I think the following cartoon from this past November suggests a lot about how folks can (and do) use language for their own purposes:
“As a Catholic adult, I have no problem with someone wishing me a happy holiday. As I see it, Christmas grew out of a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I believe the Lord I believe in would be very pleased to see that this celebration has grown to be a worldwide event celebrating kindness and caring by people of many nations, of many beliefs and cultures.”
Of course, one doesn’t have to examine this very closely to discover that the major assertion here is not factually correct, or, at least, is not based on readily available evidence, including that of the Bible. It is true that Christmas grew out of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the implication that this Christian celebration was the inspiration for the numerous other celebrations around the time of the winter solstice is simply unsupportable with factual evidence.
It can be established that many cultures do have celebrations at about this time of the year. These celebrations go by many names: Solstice, Yule, Saturnalia, Chaomos, Hanukkah, Malkh, Mödraniht, and, almost certainly, others of which I haven’t heard. The fact is, though, that many of them (all of those listed, I believe) predate the appearance of Christianity. Hence, the celebration of Jesus’ birth could not have “… grown to be a worldwide event celebrating kindness and caring by people of many nations, of many beliefs and cultures.” Christmas simply cannot be considered to have been the inspiration for these celebrations because they were around before Christmas was invented. In fact, Christmas appears to be a part of a much greater tradition of celebrations (rituals, prayers, etc.) which take place around the time of the Solstice and which were probably mostly intended to celebrate the beginning of the new cycle of the seasons and the Sun. Many of these traditions also tend to have other major celebrations at the Summer Solstice and the two Equinoxes, for which there are also traditional Christian holidays (Easter, Corpus Christi, and All Saints) which were established at these times of year precisely because they were established “holy” days before Christianity existed. Of these, only Easter (from Ostara celebrated at the vernal equinox) makes obvious sense, as it’s linked to the Jewish Passover, but due to differing calendars, the two holidays often don’t align all that exactly much of the time.
There is also the fact that we really don’t know the date of the birth of Jesus. As there is no documentary evidence from the period to establish that. The Bible, of course, really can’t be counted as documentary evidence, as the Gospels were written down after the fact with no certainty that the any of the actual Apostles could actually read and write (although Matthew probably could, as he was a Roman tax collector, who probably had to keep records.) At some point, the oral traditions of these stories were transcribed into written form and some of them were accepted by Church leaders as “correct.” The Western Christian Church established December 25 as the selected day in the early-to-mid fourth century and that date is the one most commonly used today.
It seems quite unlikely that it was the actual date, in part because: 1.) the calendar has changed more than once [depending on where in the West you happen to be]; 2.) if the actual birth was in Bethlehem because Joseph had to go there to be a part of a census of the Roman Empire [and to be taxed], it seems quite unlikely that the Romans would have required every male in the Middle East travel to his home town during the winter when travel is difficult [the Roman Empire wasn’t that stupid]; and, 3.) the shepherds spoken of in Biblical accounts would not have been in the fields in winter because their sheep would die from exposure. Various dates have been proposed for the actual date of Jesus’ birth, but it’s not really clear what would be the most likely date. Nor is it clear that it really matters. It seems most likely that the December date was selected because that time of year was already being celebrated by various pagan groups and it was the desire of the leaders of the Christian Church to “Christianize” those celebrations. But, is the specific date the most important thing about this celebration? I’ve never thought so. I don’t say these things to belittle or diminish the idea of Christmas, but because I believe that the idea of Christmas is more important than the specific date selected for its celebration.
In much the same manner, I think that trying to be aware of the best information and accuracy, clarity, and appropriateness in the use of language is of some importance. Sloppy use of language, I have found, tends to indicate sloppy thinking and/or lack of actual information (reliance on “bull.”) As I don’t like sloppiness, disorganization and lack of clarity in thought and believe that doing the basic research usually provides one with the best information available, having good information and expressing one’s ideas clearly would seem to be a desirable end. That’s why I dislike the sloppy use of language and/or the use of sloppy language where ever it occurs. What do you think?