Certain words get under my skin. I am tired of hearing Americans referred to as consumers, as though the money we spend on food, paper, soap and TV, is just so much input-output. We eat, we poop, we don’t take time to breathe, think, speak or listen. Our brains hardly matter, our spirits are invisible, yet our credit lines account for all.
Earlier this year, consumers grabbed up all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Cans of beans and tuna rust unconsumed on people’s shelves. Consumers bought up giant tell-a-visions to binge-watch Netflix, while ordinary people risked their lives as EMTs, nurses, doctors and grocery clerks. Cops binge-watched peace marchers, who binge-watched them retaliate with tear gas, rubber bullets or lead, and knees on necks.
Consumers, we are told, prefer SUVs and pick-em-ups to electric cars, even as conflagrations consume much of the Pacific Coast, caused not only by exhaust from gas-guzzlers that consumers were trained to prefer. Oil companies work overtime to create more “virgin plastic,” because we consumers are trained to buy products in plastic packaging: NPR reports that Big Oil knew for decades that recycling plastics is more time-consuming and expensive than making new plastic, yet conned consumers into believing that all plastic can be recycled. Now recycling centers are burying plastic in landfills—no place else available. Our ancient ancestors buried their dead with their weapons or gilded jewelry; we’ll be buried alive with Coke bottles and yogurt cups.
Another word that gits under my last nerve is “gifted,” as a verb. I ordered two gifts for my wife’s birthday. The book came on time, and I gave it to her that morning. It was a quiet day, and she thought that was it. A week later the second gift arrived in the mail, a CD by Eureka’s gifted Buffalo Gals, which should be given to all lovers of clever songwriting, heartfelt singing, and acoustic instruments. Either I presented her with these gifts, or I gave her two presents, but never would I admit to having gifted her these simple items.
The difficulty here is that saying “I gifted her that book” makes perfect sense—it’s just hard on the ear for someone whose life has been touched by an appreciation of language, spoken and written, in dialogue, dialect, and dichotomy.
How about “impactful?” That word just sounds ugly, like a jackhammer struck my eardrum, with a jarring impact. Maybe it works for dentists: “Sorry, sir, you have an impactful wisdom tooth.” Yes, I can imagine a tooth full of impact. Was the Republican Convention impactful on the polls that predict how we may cast a vote at the polls? (Go to the polls and vote again, after you have sent in your mail-in vote, sez the prez, championing the voter-fraud he has consistently hollered against.)
Avoiding the terrible news about hurricanes, raging fires, and eternal electioneering is what makes me want to sidetrack into linguistical silliness. (In our house, we refer to linguistics as “linguini,” which should be cooked to please Al-the-Dentist. Same root word, having to do with the tongue.) It’s relaxificationalizing to engage in word play, and to analyze and occasionally shudder at how language changes.
I remember signs in my Louisiana childhood that defined “colored” water fountains and entrances. Over time, “colored” was replaced by “Negro,” “black,” “Afro-American,” “African American,” and “Black.” Now we speak respectfully of “people of color,” which includes almost anyone who is not lily-white in a country where the show is written, produced, directed and stars a majority White corporation. And “people of color,” ironically, are expansive enough to welcome poor whites and LGBTQs of any color who are dislocated from the White world. I cain’t hardly keep up.
My 8th grade English class, McMain Junior High, New Orleans, began with a list of stupid writing prompts. I chose “My Pet Peeves,” not knowing what it meant. I wrote about a pet lizard that said “peeves! peeves!” Mrs. Wade read it aloud and kids laughed. I’m still trying to make sense out of language. Not fake news, but fake wisdom.