July 29, 2014

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Here’s the fastest, surest way to identify the subspecies hackus punditus“€”watch for them to display one particular behavior, especially when deadlines loom during summer months:

They invariably begin one of their columns with the phrase “€œWebster’s dictionary defines…”€

But while it is the end of July, I do have what I believe to be a fairly believable excuse for falling back on that old trope.

Merriam-Webster really has started on the path to defining “€œconservatism”€ as “€œbigotry.”€

The intentional conflation of both words is hardly news at this juncture, but the Daily Caller‘s been working this beat nonetheless. First they noticed that when you Google “€œbigotry,”€ that search engine supreme helpfully returns a definition that includes the word “€œright-wing.”€

“€œYet I was rattled when, in his new book, The Language Hoax, McWhorter challenged one of the sturdiest baseline beliefs on both left and right: that words matter.”€

When confronted, Google blamed the Oxford English Dictionary and vowed to “€œflag”€ the result as “€œinappropriate.”€ (Google “€œflag the result as inappropriate”€ and you”€™ll turn up “€œdo sweet dick-all.”€)”€¨”€¨ Then a ticked-off reader tipped off the Daily Caller: did they know Merriam-Webster was up to similar semantic mischief?

In its entry for “€œbigotry,”€ the unabridged dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com proffers “€œrelated words,”€ and sure enough, one of those is “€œconservatism.”€

Questioned via email, an associate editor responded at some length. However, anyone who’s had the misfortune of corresponding with private or public sector factotums will immediately spot many familiar corporate-speak synonyms for “€œplease kill yourself”€ embedded in her unfailingly polite message, rather like those lethal suggestions to “€œplay a little game of solitaire”€ in The Manchurian Candidate.

“€œI would imagine millions of impressionable young minds go to this site to find definitions of words for school,”€ the Daily Caller‘s anonymous complainant had written. “€œThis is extremely dangerous and powerful.”€

But is it?

I”€™ve always admired John McWhorter’s willingness, as a self-described “€œliberal Democrat,”€ to squirt Febreze on some of that tribe’s smellier orthodoxies.

Yet I was rattled when, in his new book, The Language Hoax, McWhorter challenged one of the sturdiest baseline beliefs on both left and right: that words matter.

Orwell’s 1946 essay “€œPolitics and the English Language”€ is that belief’s foundational text. Its mantra is Alinsky’s: “€œHe who controls the language controls the masses.”€ While few laymen have heard of linguist Benjamin Whorf, his theory that “€œwe dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages”€ is one most of us take for granted.

You know: “€œEskimos have a hundred words for “€˜snow”€™”€ and all that. Except they don”€™t. Yet that anthropological “€œarctic legend”€ seems so intuitively, poetically true that effectively debunking it has proven almost impossible.

On the other hand, Yiddish does indeed boast a gratuitous surfeit of synonyms for “€œmoron,”€ at least as far as this philosemitic shiksa was once concerned”€”until, late-ish in life, I finally met, face-to-face, actual stupid Jews, whom I”€™d previously imagined to be as plentiful as, well, dodos.

And what about this fancy lady, who finds it significant “€œthat Latin has only one basic verb for “€œlaugh”€ (ridere), but many nouns meaning “€˜joke,”€™ while in Greek the opposite is true. Greeks cackled, chortled, giggled, and guffawed; Romans told jokes”€?


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