Friday, February 19, 2010

The difference between irony and terrorism

We talk about language on this blog a lot. “For the love of language” is the second most common tag here. It’s only trumped by “book review.”

Language lovers such as Tricia and I enjoy the nitpicky stuff. I like complaining about how people misuse the words “ironic” and “random.”

(It’s ironic if there is a Borders bookstore at the border of Mentor and Painesville. It is not ironic if you have 10,000 forks and all you need is a knife. It is unfortunate, it’s bizarre place setting, but it is not ironic.)

But even I realize the misuse of irony is a small potatoes. Quite frankly, language is malleable. New inventions create new words. Slang bends standard definitions. For example, look at the way I used potatoes at the beginning of this paragraph. In this context, potatoes meant “issue” or “concern.” Generally, that is not the definition of a potato; but you all understood what I meant.

At its basest level, a word (or any other symbol) means what everyone agrees it means.

So it might not be ironic in the traditional sense if it rains on someone’s wedding day, but we know what Alanis Morrisette meant.

However, there are some times when precise language is not just a matter of quibbling.

Consider the word terrorist.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon notes how the definition of terrorist has been warped. He uses Joseph Stack as an example, noting that cable news networks are hesitant to label him a terrorist:

Fox News’ Megan Kelley asked Catherine Herridge about these denials: “I take it that they mean terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to?,” to which Herridge replied: “they mean terrorism in that capital T way.”

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.

Let’s try to keep politics out of this. This is not a political forum. It’s a book blog. But this is still a linguistic issue, like the misuse of irony. Granted, it’s one with more serious ramifications.

When someone misuses random, I bristle. When someone refuses to label Joseph Stack a “Terrorist with a capital T” because he is not Muslim, we have a deeper problem.

Words have been used denigrate specific populations before. (I don’t need to write a list of slurs to remind you.) Sometimes, those words are reclaimed or repurposed. They become more or less offensive as time passes. But we may be watching the creation of a new slur.

Language evolves as species do. Most of these language changes are responses to a changing environment. (We created an Internet, so we needed a new word to identify it.)

Sometimes, these language changes are made of stupid — guesstimate, for example. It expresses nothing new or clever, but it is still essentially a harmless change.

Occasionally, a language change is malignant.

So consider this my pledge. I will no longer complain when people say “utilize” instead of “use.” Let people apply the words “random” and “ironic” as they see fit, as long as I can understand them.

From here on in, I only pitch my language battles where it matters.

-Jason Lea,

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