Words are all we have…

Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.”

(Lyrics from the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, songwriters Alan Jay Lerner; Frederick Loewe)

Well now, there’s a challenge for the average writer. All we have is words.

I wanted to talk about word choice, about the power of words and of how how Eliza’s complaint does shape our writing… and why using words of power for trivia… does not make trivia important, it destroys the words.

It is like calling your dictatorship ‘the People’s Democratic Republic of whatever’. The words are picked for baggage of meaning they carry – a tool we writers use all the time. The problem of course is that Orwellian Newspeak like this is our worst enemy. Not only do the words fail for their new and adopted meaning, but they lose their old meaning and connotations. Just as ‘gay’ was once a term applied my clan, for their cheerful exuberance (everything is relative. This was in Scotland, and according to my Scots grandmother, purely related to their behavior when taken by drink or fighting, or, more commonly, both) and was adopted to its modern use for its useful baggage of connotations. Did it work? Well, I recently heard kids sneering at a reluctant participant in their cheerful exuberance not to be so gay… so I think a fair answer is no, not really. It’s lost the old meaning completely to most people, and the new one now means pretty much what the terms it replaced. What was shown in the new usage was not the old meaning. There is no magic in the word, but in what people associate with it, and that can easily be destroyed.

Someone in the Apartheid Government must have thought 1984 was an instruction manual, because they tried it a lot, changing what they called black folk and the administrators who applied the system. The problem with the euphemisms is they changed the words… but that was all. Strangely enough the words had no special magic and did not instantly make the world approve. They showed by their actions just what they meant by those words.

We’ve had a lot of it lately in politics and puppy kicking (the two are basically interchangeable a lot of the time). People using words for their power… in places where they’re hopelessly inaccurate and inappropriate. ‘Hitler’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘homophobe’ or ‘sexist.’ Now, these are powerful words with substantial implications, and certainly used correctly had negative impacts on the people they were used against… But the words themselves are not magical. Use them in your book today… and well, if they’re used merely as weapons against people who the user dislikes and disagrees with… pretty soon that’s all they’ll mean. In fact they may well come to mean the opposite…

As a practical example: as one of the Sad Puppies I was called all of the list above. Now, I worked out I’ve been involved in some kind of first responder volunteering for damn near 40 years now. These days I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer. That means if there’s that car crash in the middle of the night, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll be first into that vehicle, trying to do my best for the injured. Now according the puppy kickers I’d crawl into the upside-down, half-crushed vehicle and see the bleeding individual and say “Are you homosexual? Or not white? I can’t tell if you’re a woman (odds are good my fellow volunteer will be, and every one of them is someone to ride the river with) so what sex are you? I need to know before I check your airway and deal with the bleeding and do my best to rescue you.”

Injured car crash victim being unconscious, and having an obstructed airway fails to fill out the lack-of-diversity checklist I have to carry to live up to the words applied to me by the commenters at File 770… oh dearie me.

These words mean nothing to me. Whether that’s NK Jemison, or Vox Day hanging by that seatbelt, I’m still going to do exactly what I would have done – which is the best I can possibly do to save lives and help the injured, in order of the first aid guidelines – which don’t actually have anything to do with sex, sexual orientation or skin color, or even politics, but relate to giving the victims the best chance.

The words have not lived up to their ‘magic’. The ‘show’ doesn’t match them. It’s not the show that will change. I am what I am, and do what I do. There is ample evidence of that, contrary to the words used because they were powerful and the user wanted to harm someone they didn’t like and disagreed with. Yes, I know. I saw the video of the woman who thought it better to have her pizza cut into 8 pieces and not 12 because she couldn’t eat twelve pieces. There are people that stupid that they will rather believe the words than the ‘show’. There are people who can’t understand simple probabilities too. But despite them, what will happen is that the meaning of the word will change to what it shows.

If you think about it, that’s… not a great idea. Someday someone MAY literally be like Hitler, or a neo-Nazi. It’ll be a trifle awkward, then, if the words come out merely meaning ‘someone I don’t like and disagree with’ – especially if you’ve shown you’re a nasty, malicious piece of work, prepared to use these words for your own gain. You’re more likely to make readers assume the opposite is true and you’re being your normal ‘delightful’ self and projecting and lying again.

And this of course feeds through into writing. Writing popular fiction that gets readers eager to buy takes a skillful suspension of disbelief. Now, the truly great writer can make the reader at least for the duration of the book accept something he or she knows is not true. But – speaking as one of the not great, it’s a task best woven on a loom of truth, with some threads of fiction. If you’re going to portray a place most readers know is a rustbelt city, decaying, with no work available, and 80% black population… If you write it as that, and weave threads of fiction and perhaps even threads of truth about positive aspects which are less known… you’ll have a chance at suspending disbelief.

If you start trying to use the magic words like ‘thriving’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘multicultural’ they won’t work. The show (as it exists) in the mind of the readers, does not match the words. At best they’ll TBAR your book. At worst other writers will support the same magic words and soon they’ll be understood as what is shown. That’s been the weakness of PC scripted writing: not that it necessarily had poor goals, but that magic of words is weak, and can only shift reality by microns, but reality can shift the meanings of words by miles.

If you want your book to change the world and all you have is words, be prepared to move it a hair’s breadth. That you can do. Try for a league, and you’ll probably hurt what you wished to do instead.

56 thoughts on “Words are all we have…

    1. I was about to write something quite similar. Certain words become meaningless through over use. The use by date on “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” and others is long past.

      1. Worse, they have been used for things not even remotely related and so dilute the meaning, Wolf now means a sheep that bleats in a slightly different key.
        TBWCW {the boy who cried wolf} did so for a lark and to feel the power of getting so many people to react to his command. These fools are trying it to gain power, and are starting from a point just after TBWCW was ate by said wolf, and the wolf killed. The point at which everyone knows the wolf is pretty much dead and gone, they get more shrill crying Wolf

      2. “The use by date on “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” and others is long past.”
        These now mean “white,” “male,” and “heterosexual,” respectively.

    2. Last year I heard some 12-13 year olds saying “That’s so racist,” referring to something stupid. Two years ago it was “Sheesh, that’s soooo gay” meaning stupid. The words have lost all their original meaning, at least among the young.

    3. Please! not ‘boy’. That’s so cis-patriarchal sexist. And not wolf as if it was something to be afraid of. It’s a rare endangered and much misunderstood and maligned animal. If it occasionally needs to eat a boy… well so long as it sticks to boys… /sarc

    1. The German government will tell you. At least, they will after the new year, when they are instituting a new bureau to weed out fake news ahead of the 2017 elections. Frau Kancellorin seems to have relapsed into pure DDR [German Democratic Republic] and forgotten that she’s supposed to be the leader of the BRD [Federal Republic of Germany].

  1. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Perhaps more to the point, if you are a missionary of the felspel(1) of Marx, and you are converting a bunch of unskilled college students, it may be best not to encourage them to develop more practical tools lest they see other options and fall into apostasy.

    (1) Like “gospel”, except it’s bad news.

        1. Not a meme. Socialism was originally merely a heresy of Christianity, missing the truth the same way ‘prosperity gospel’ does. Marx was Socialism’s Martin Luther, and one of his key reforms was pretending to be ‘economics’, a ‘science’.

            1. The people that proclaim it? Sure they do. They’re following the Gospel of St. Barnum: “There’s one born every minute.”

            2. While I think the apostle Paul could say a thing or two about prosperity theology, it’s actually based on an ancient misconception. The Book of Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible, and even here we see a type of prosperity theology: Serve God well and you prosper; sin against God and you fail. The Book of Job goes much deeper than this, and is a prime example that ancient people weren’t stupid. And yet, though it refutes the basic idea of Job’s “friends,” that same idea exists with us to this very day. Prosperity theology is just another verse of it.

              1. I know the Book of Job well – it’s the underpinning of Pride’s Children, and part of Kary’s trust in God.

                I think the prospering there is not what ‘prosperity gospel’ means. Prosperity gospel is this cargo cult-type belief that you will get a contagion from the preacher and magically get rich.

                And it is heavily manipulated with stooges in the audience.

                Yes, God wants us to be prosperous and happy – He made us for happiness. But it is far behind the other things He expects us to be and do. Or at least that’s the way I’ve always seen it: help other people with whatever you have. I don’t do this enough.

                Being insanely rich, are these preachers creating homes for the homeless and feeding the hungry and starting schools and helping prisoners? No, they are living like Trump on other people’s money. And have private jets!

                Can you imagine Jesus with a private jet? It boggles the mind.

                1. Ray Stevens had Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?

                  It’s not quite cargo cult belief. It’s more like God will make you rich if you’re in His will. This includes things like donations. You know, such as to the preacher teaching these things.

                  1. The issue is it ignores several fundamental lessons in ‘God’s idea of prosperity isn’t necessarily in line with human notions.’

  2. This is way over my head. It makes me think of things like Archie Bunker’s mutilation of the English language and what that telegraphed to the viewer and George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which was funny not so much for the shock value of foul language, but how words are used. Then there’s the skit from The Young Ones where one of the main characters says to a Benito Mussolini look-alike “You Facist!” and the look-alike says “Yes!”

    So much here. If I had a character who praised a certain rust-belt city as a utopia, it would say something about him. But if the city was a near utopia in the future, that might be fun precisely because the reader would know it isn’t now and wonders what happened. Then again, there’s reader perception vs reality, and that goes both ways: I’ve been in “rough” places were I felt perfectly safe, and in “nice” places where I wouldn’t hang around after sundown. But if I wrote what I saw and experienced, it probably would throw the reader right out of the book because it’s unexpected.

    The use of slur and invective is interesting because it reveals a good bit about the person uttering it, particularly what they value most. That includes checklists, and maybe ignorance of the parable of the Good Samaritan or at least what it means. And, to be honest, paying attention to some critics is simply a waste of time.

    1. The difference between character perception and author perception is something many authors miss, because the character is essentially wishful autobiography ;-/

  3. They accuse us of judging people by their race/gender/orientation because that’s what they do all the time.

    1. indeed. The projection is strong. We all tend to assume that others think and act like us, and that we’re quite reasonable and centrist. It takes a bright and able human to be able to step outside of that and actually understand someone who thinks quite differently.

  4. Forgive me this, but in some regards writers and lawyers share a few similarities. Both use words to affect their audience. Good ones are judged by their ability to use the tools of words to accomplish their goals.
    Difference is, lawyers seek to manipulate the minds of the members of the jury while fiction writers merely seek to entertain the reader.

    1. My least favorite lawyerese: Including but not limited to <giant-list>

      Why put that giant list in if you are not limiting scope to it? Just say “any thingy that does X”.

    1. Er, click on what Sykes said for full context:

      “Bored? Read a book! They’re like movies or video games, but no one will send you death threats for liking the wrong ones!”

      1. Um, isn’t that Brandon guy right that the *anti-pups* were sending death threats? Or am I mis-remembering?

                1. Oh come now my good Dave, I am sure he revels in it. Lets him wallow in dramatic angst-soaked ennui so he may moan and wail like an approved Artiste de l’aile gauche without having to exert himself too much lying. Imagined suffering is after all their next favourite pastime after looking down their noses and sneering at us degoutants.

                  1. Heh. You’re quite possibly right. Still, it appears he is no longer ’employed’ by the Grauniad which must hurt him, as it was his only shred of credibility, even if only in certain subset of the Ctrl left.

  5. Minorities. The only subsection of the population that can never be a minority is white males. Because “Minority” no longer has anything to do with numbers, percentages, or the size of the population.

    Personally I think we should all just claim to be gender confused (Heck, I am. Can’t keep all those genders straight. What are there? 35 now or some such absurdity?) Which makes us a minority, right there. Then we could get DNA tests and some of us could start claiming _racial_ minority status, which is a much higher ranked status than mere gender-based minority preference . . . Or is it the other way around? I’m so confused . . . Maybe I should repurpose an old term. Sarcastic, or silly? Hmm . . .

  6. “…the lack-of-diversity checklist I have to carry to live up to the words applied to me by the commenters at File 770…”

    The more those retards hate something or someone, the more likely it is to be worth looking into.

    The reverse is also proven time and time again. A positive review by the Vile-ers is a virtual guarantee of grey goo.

    1. I note that Glyer, who usually links to all Puppy-related posts, has avoided this one. But that could be because of our policy of not approving his backtracks, as well.

    1. It’s like that old joke — what does a sadist answer when a masochist begs, “Beat me!”?

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