Torturing the English language isn't new, but lately, we have found ourselves grimacing increasingly often at new examples. For example, we recently encountered these gems in an emailed "Coronavirus Update" from the Washington Post (emphasis in original):
"The CDC encourages all eligible adults to get vaccinated. But the agency's exhortations are especially urgent for women and others who are pregnant — they need to get vaccinated. Several reasons motivate this message: Pregnant people are among the least likely to be vaccinated ..."
There was a time when a reporter would be put on probation for such abuses. But now, he (or they, or it, or whatever the perpetrator fancies) will probably be elevated to oversee the Washington Post's style manual.
Phrases such as "pregnant people" instead of "pregnant women" and "person with a womb" instead of "female" or "woman" may be laughable, but they're also irritating. We assume these circumlocutions attempt to be inclusive of pregnant transgender men, although it seems overdone. These kinds of changes, or accommodations, seem to us the imposition of "language vandalism" in the interest of wokeness or political correctness.
Sadly, these are far from the only examples of vandalism of our language by self-entitled small constituencies.
"Violence" is another example of a word twisted and distorted in the last few years. It now seems to mean any action or speech that causes discomfiture to someone, anyone, anywhere. But that preempts our ability to describe actual physical injury as we have understood the meaning for millennia. This vocabulary vandalism has an obvious purpose: to strike at those who disagree with you by making an accusation of a substantive infraction.
Another good example is "equity," which the dictionary defines as "the quality of being fair and impartial." But now, it has been redefined by the progressive Left to mean equality of outcomes along racial and ethnic lines. That is hardly "impartial." This is a gross and purely political and ideological distortion of a word. Why do people accept the corruption of a beneficent concept?
Similarly, we hear the oxymoron "social justice" frequently, despite the fact justice requires impartiality while social justice demands preferential treatments.
In some cases, new meaning is imputed out of thin air to an existing word. "Racism" comes to mind. Merriam-Webster says it is "a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" or "behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief: racial discrimination or prejudice." Yet, today, its usage has become so distorted that prominent activists have no qualms mouthing absurdities such as that it is racist not to discriminate — in favor of anonymous past or present victims. In other words, it can be racist not to be racist.
One more form of language vandalism is phraseology that is either self-contradictory or misdirected. The term "mostly peaceful" protests attempts to underplay the far more salient, violent aspects of the events. But the people who were injured or lost property would likely reject that characterization. Another recent example is President Joe Biden's proposed $5 trillion social legislation that will impose "zero cost," a phrase that makes zero sense in that context.
Then there are the absurd euphemisms "justice-involved youth" for young criminals, "investments" for government spending, "climate change" for global warming, or "my truth" for subjective perceptions that preempt reality.
If our cars or homes were vandalized with spray paint or our property otherwise damaged, any of us would be furious. We would want not only to punish the perpetrators but also repair the damage and prevent its recurrence. Yet, when it comes to progressives or others vandalizing our language, the typical reaction often seems to be going along with it. We should condemn politically or ideologically motivated distortion of English and insist that people say what they mean in precise terms and not allow the real meaning to be subverted by words misapplied and easily misconstrued.
Language has power. We must fight its misuse.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the author of three books and thousands of articles. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.