The Degradation of our Language

Posted on July 3, 2017


I have seen the word “inappropriate” used often these days, as a substitute for something which should be labeled venal, wrong, sinful, immoral, lying and a dozen other “appropriate” words which I can think of.

If we dip into our handy online Merriam Webster’s dictionary, we find inappropriate to mean: not right or suited for some purpose or situation: not appropriate or suitable.

I counted twenty-one synonyms for inappropriate in Webster’s. And, for an example of how to use it they offer “The movie’s subject matter is inappropriate for small children.”

One of the most recent applications of the “inappropriate” syndrome was Governor Robert Bentley’s description of his relationship with his press secretary, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. I don’t know, nor particularly care, what went on between Bentley and Mason, but Bentley’s wife of fifty years filed for divorce in 2015, and the day after Bentley fired his Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, Collier spilled the beans on Bentley and Mason.

Bentley harkened back to good old boy Bill Clinton. As President of the United States and confronted with having had sex with Monica Lewinsky in the White House, in the mid-1990s, the Prez claimed he didn’t.

When facing a grand jury later in 1998, the president admitted that his relationship with Lewinsky was “not appropriate.” When faced with the little sordid tale, the President answered whether he did or did not have sex with her “depends on what is having sex. It all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”

I’m not holding governors and presidents to a higher moral or ethical standard than the normal human being. It’s obvious most of the them, and I include most politicians in high office, would fail.

And I’m not picking on politicians. I could throw in university presidents and professors, judges, CEOs, and any other category you wish to add to the list of Americans who have so watered down our sense of right and wrong, what is moral and immoral, and confounded the difference between truth and lies, in a blizzard of language that serves to excuse them from all wrongdoing.

I could add a few other trite phrases that have become the norm in explaining things, like “spin,” as in she spun it her way, “misunderstanding,” for some real whoppers, and I really like “misspoke” for speaking with a long nose, kind of like Pinocchio.

Let me explain. Language reflects one’s cultural values. And one could add any other values—religious, economic, political, social, sexual, racial, etc. We are in fact what we say. The Bible tells me so.

I thought I would throw in that phrase to quickly establish my prejudice. But, before you turn the page to the comics (one of my favorite sections of the newspaper BTW), let me explain that the Bible is not only an expression of timeless principles and commandments, but it also specifically, especially in the Book of James, directs attention to the spoken word.

Words in fact have power. And the words of God of the Bible were the very equivalent of action.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. Through him all things were made….” John 1:1-3 Substitute Jesus Christ for “the Word” above and you have the full meaning of this passage, one of the most famous in the entire Bible.

If God set the world in motion with his Word, then the words of man have a near equal power, not only to praise God but to do evil.

The “tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:6

“No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:8

Let me indulge my love of Scripture with one last quote from the Book of Proverbs. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. “Proverbs 18:21

Why all this Scripture in the new land of the “inappropriate?” Because words have power.

When you mangle language, your thinking also goes down the drain. Suddenly everyone who lived in the pre-World War II South is a “racist.” If you think women have a right to “work” as homemakers instead of in offices, you are a “misogynist.” Everyone it seems is “offended” by someone else.

People shout at each other like boxers taking swings and punches in the ring. Nobody is listening, and, let me suggest, that is because the language of the times has been degraded almost beyond recognition.

“Breaking news” is now the preface for all the news networks, the breathless recounting of how the Russians continue to spy on the U.S. as if we weren’t doing the very same thing, the latest outrage by the (you pick: Democrats, Republicans, Black Lives Matter, Ku Klux Klan, etc.), the newest renaming of buildings and colleges like Yale University, ad infinitum.

What’s broken is our language, and the sooner we get old fashioned grammarians to the rescue, the sooner we begin the march back to sanity, not to speak of honesty and truth.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday Feb. 18, 2017 as We’ve Lost Control of Language.