The World of Words


R. Buckminster Fuller, the great inventor, thinker and visionary, is reputed to have taken a vow of silence at one point early in his career. He had suffered the effects of some bad business transactions involving others and, having lost everything, concluded that the reason for his losses was that he had not fully understood the meaning of the words that others had spoken to him. He therefore resolved not to speak until he thoroughly understood the meanings of the words he used.

Fuller's silence apparently lasted for some two years at which time he resumed conversations but with a particularly distinctive style, to which anyone who has read his books or was fortunate enough to hear him speak can attest.

Primitive man's invention of language wrought far more than an enhanced ability to communicate. It also created a mental world distinct from the world of reality itself. It is within this world of words that literate people spend most of their waking moments. Even while experiencing the world first-hand, while skiing, surfing or mountain climbing for example, most people continue to translate their experience into words and to keep up a constant internal dialogue with themselves. One purpose of meditation is to surmount or transcend this soundtrack, and experience existence as it really is, without the commentary.

Because the bombardment of words continually shapes and reshapes our worldview, clever people long ago realized that if one could assign respectable words to undesirable things one could affect a change in the public's perception of the thing in question, thereby making it more acceptable in the public mind. Thus was born the euphemism.

Government soon mastered this art. The War Department became the Defense Department. The Tax Department became the Internal Revenue Service. (Note also the clever use of the word “service” which implies you are being given something, rather than having your hard-earned money taken from you). Unemployment Insurance has become Employment Insurance, hospitals are "health centers," illegal immigrants are called “undocumented workers," war is “armed conflict” and taxes are referred to as "contributions." People have short memories, and these newly minted terms soon pass into the public consciousness to stay.

In the public arena, notable successes in changing the dialogue were achieved by substituting the term “senior citizens” for old folks, “gay” for homosexual, “sex worker” or “escort” for prostitute, “open marriage” for infidelity, “freedom of choice” for abortion, and “I made a mistake” or “I misspoke” for I lied.

However, despite these triumphs, as far as I am aware no one has yet undertaken the task of eliminating, or at least softening crime by replacing the current terminology with more politically correct descriptions. In order to get this effort started I hereby submit my alphabetical list of suggested improvements:

Assault Preemptive self-defense Blackmail Scandal suppression Bootlegging Private liquor distribution Bribery Positive result insurance Burglary Property redistribution Embezzlement Unpublicized personal dividend payment Forgery Imitative art Murder Involuntary suicide Perjury Faulty Memory syndrome Robbery Property imbalance correction Theft Possession reduction

By substituting these new terms for the old, tired ones, we can all do our bit to help get rid of the last vestiges of sanity in our society.

April 3, 2008