Pauline Nevins: Partly cloudy became partly sunny
Where’s George Carlin when you need him? I thought about George recently. This controversial irreverent stand-up comedian, who died over a decade ago, would have been 83 this not-so-merry month of May.
I’m not in the habit of dwelling on the birthdays of famous people — dead or alive — but George popped into my consciousness, triggered by COVID-19 phrases.
George might have referred to these new phrases as “soft language.” If you watch his “language” performance on YouTube, you’ll know what I mean. George, you’ll learn, hated euphemisms. He claims they’ve become more prevalent with each generation, designed to shield Americans from facing reality. Prowling across the stage, his words punctuated with forceful gestures, his eyes wide, he gives examples:
After World War I, the excruciating trauma suffered by many returning soldiers was called “Shell Shock” — “simple, honest, direct language,” says George. Hearing those words we can picture an artillery shell and the shock to the nervous system this exploding bombardment would have on soldiers.
Fast forward to World War II, and George reminds us that this same trauma was now called “Battle Fatigue” — a softer explanation — “fatigue is a nicer word than shock.” Moving on to Korea we have “Operational Exhaustion.” “The humanity has been completely squeezed out of the phrase, it’s totally sterile now,” he laments. And then there was Vietnam — “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” — “and the pain is completely buried under jargon” — reduced to four initials, PTSD.
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George has lighter moments. The weather forecasts, he asserts, have morphed — “partly cloudy became partly sunny … the dump became the landfill.” And because of Americans’ fear of death, he says reaching skyward, “I won’t have to die — I’ll pass away — or I’ll expire like a magazine subscription.”
So what would George have said about the coronavirus phrase, “shelter in place?” I have no doubt he would have called this another case of “soft language” — designed to take the edge of reality. “Shelter,” George might say, sounds comforting and voluntary — instead of a mandatory government order (albeit one I appreciate). The comic might prefer something more direct such as the headline that blasted — “Stay home.”
And then there’s another oft-used coronavirusism — “Social distancing.” I can hear George deriding the term. Sounds like something a class-conscious society might practice. How about “Back off.” Not polite, but to the point.
There are two phrases I’ve been introduced to recently that are not linked to the coronavirus, but clearly fit George’s assertion that “soft language takes the life out of life.”
One is “food insecurity.” I winced when I first saw those words in print. Food insecurity? It sounded like a personal problem. A condition that could be cured by the right counselor. The article was about hunger. A word you can feel. May even have felt. You can empathize. You might be compelled to do something about it.
The other phrase is “white privilege” — two simple words describing an invisible package of unearned assets based on race that society affords white people over non-white people. I don’t argue with the assertion. It’s the word “privilege.”
During this “stay home” period, I’ve been stuffing my face with re-runs of Downton Abbey, the wonderful British television series that dramatizes the differences in early 1900s England between the lives of the privileged upper classes and those of the lower classes. I can tell you that when it comes to upstairs-downstairs, I’d rather be upstairs having a lady’s maid lace my corset than be downstairs sweating in the kitchen helping Downton cook, Mrs. Patmore, plop sausages in the toad-in-the-hole mix. So, rather than being a disparaging term, “privilege”’ is something I might aspire to — but “white privilege” would be a challenge since I’m mixed race.
So please, let’s drop “food insecurity” and bring back hunger. It sounds desperate. It is desperate. Let’s drop “white privilege” and bring back racism. It sounds evil. It is evil. The real words, the hard words, might move us to change things.
To those cooking up the next clever word or phrase, how about asking, “What would George say?”
Pauline Nevins lives in Colfax. She can be reached at paulinenevins.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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