September 01, 2006

The tainting of words

Update: Speaking of evolving language, here's a new (mis?)use of the verb dignify.

Reading Borderland's musings on (yet another) report that warns of impending economic catastrophe and widespread illiteracy:

the “embedded” math mentors for our new Everyday Math curriculum adoption - today I heard the word embedded, with respect to classrooms, for the first time. Maybe people talk like this in other places? Living in Alaska, I often feel grateful to be out of touch.

First, I was suprised, as the term instantly brought to mind the embedded journalists in the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent cycnical distortion of the term into “in-bed-with”.

This in turn reminded me of something I read long ago when I was studying German literature. (I thought at first it was something by Georg Lukacs, but I think it was something by George Steiner, perhaps this book ). Whoever it was, was writing about how the German language had been tainted by the Nazis because of the associations certain words had. One example given was of words typically used in (particularly anti-Semitic) propaganda films the Nazis made and which many Germans of the time saw (and remembered). As a result, the critic stated, it was not possible to use these words because their past associations were so strongly (and in many cases, disgustingly) (damn! now I can’t use the word “embedded”!) linked to anti-Semitic propaganda and manipulation, and because they were used in movies, the associations included images and sounds.

Of course, living languages are always evolving, and not all changes are the result of propaganda (for a fascinating look at the history of propaganda in the West take a look at Alex Carey) . “Gay”, for instance, can no longer be used to refer to an extrovert, cheerful person.

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