The Outstater: Conventions and Why Words Matter

August 29, 2012

As an old editor I concede that you can be too picayunish about words. It no longer makes any difference whether you write auto or motorcar, to pick an example from my vintage stylebook. But some words (liberty, God, Jerusalem, heroism, compassion) matter to some more than others. When they lose their meaning, people lose parts of themselves.

Dr. James Boyd White, a University of Michigan law professor and literary critic, addressed this concern in a series of essays in the early 1980s:

“When Thucydides wishes to express his sense of the internal chaos brought upon the cities of Greece by the civil wars that arose during the time of the Peloponnesian War, he tells us, among other things, that words themselves lost their meaning. The Greek terms for bravery and cowardice and trust and loyalty and manliness and weakness and moderation, the key terms of value in that world, changed their accepted significance and their role in thought and life.”

He noted that what once had been “idiotic recklessness” became “stouthearted loyalty,” and what would have been “prudent foresight” became cowardice.

Dr. White went on to argue that these changes in meaning are not reversed by merely insisting on the traditional definition. “It is a change in the world and the self, in manners and conduct and sentiment,” he concludes. “Changes of this kind are complex and reciprocal in nature.”

So it’s not that the word changes, we do? If you agree, that puts you somewhere between a “prescriptivist” and a “descriptivist,” according to the essayist Joseph Epstein, or someone who believes that “language is mutable but reserves the right to loath certain changes, however widely accepted they may be” — or, it might be added, however unanimous the vote of the platform committee.

Even as Dr. White was writing, Americans had begun to lose their grip on the definitions of courage and heroism.In an example that rankles this editor still, we accepted misapplication of the term “the right stuff.” That was the title of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 tribute to the legendary Chuck Yeager and the early swashbuckling test pilots.

The Washington press corps, flacking for a relection-minded John F. Kennedy, commandeered Mr. Wolfe’s wonderful phrase to describe mere astronauts. They did so even though Mr. Wolfe wrote his book expressly to distinguish Mr. Yeager from John Glenn and the other “monkeys in flight suits” that the Kennedy administration strapped to rockets for the Mercury spacecraft program.

That particular mysology is now complete. It is a challenge to find a reference in the popular media to Mr. Glenn that does not credit him with having the “right stuff,” or one to Mr. Yeager that does.

We lost the meaning of hero altogether not long after Sept. 11, 2001. The title was awarded to people for just showing up at work: bankers, lawyers and bureaucrats sitting at their desk at the World Trade Center when a highjacked Boeing 767 slammed through the window. They were role models and loved ones, perhaps, and victims, certainly, but not heroes.

If you want a measure of heroism go to India. There the highest military award, the Param Vir Chakra, is given only for the “rarest of the rare gallantry that is beyond the call of duty and is in normal life considered impossible to do.” Yes, even to be eligible you have to break the laws of realty.

And disaster, with its Latin root implying a heavenly curse, once was reserved for events of Biblical import. Now it is any misfortune that can be documented under the labyrinthian requirements of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, e.g., people living below sea level on the Gulf of Mexico without the foresight to prepare for big hurricanes.

There are real disasters, of course, but they come in all sizes, not just those large enough to have utility as a convention keynote. For example, some Kansans were insulted in 2007 by the casual treatment that a presidential candidate gave a disaster there. He had assumed — or at least stated — that 10,000 people in Greensburg had died in a tornado when the number was actually 11 in a city of less than 800.

The incident itself, sadly, was not that unusual on the Great Plains. I once carried in my wallet a copy of a news story (circa 1850) that told of railroad surveyors coming across a settlement of German settlers. They were living entirely underground. These pioneers, not long after arriving in Kansas, had been hit by a tornado. And as they were brushing themselves off, another tore into them from a different direction. They didn’t file for damages, they adjusted.

Back to the candidate’s overstatement: “In case you missed it, this week there was a tragedy in Kansas,” he said in setting up a jab that the local National Guard had been diverted for service in Iraq. “Ten thousand people died — an entire town destroyed” (the incumbent government doesn’t care about you, being the message).

I never bought that the candidate was suffering from campaign fatigue. He accepted the 10,000 figure for three reasons, all of them telling: First, he knew nothing about our flyover towns with their guns, Bibles and tornadoes; second, the big number fit nicely into his political narrative of an inland Katrina; and last, he only thought of us, when he thought of us at all, in the abstract.

If that last is so — or even partly so — the lack of compassion should worry you. Ten thousand people, an entire American town, wiped off the face of the earth, and it’s only a talking point at a campaign stop?

It so happens that I grew up in a Kansas town of about 10,000. If it had in fact been destroyed in a disastrous storm one night, my family, friends and neighbors would have meant no more to this Washington bunch (or any Washington bunch) than a few words punched into a Telescript Pro 200 teleprompter. They wouldn’t even have Googled the correct body count.

Like those underground settlers, we’re by ourselves out here. Political conventions, Democrat or Republican, can’t really care except in the most postured sense — especially if we don’t belong to any identifiable, exploitable group. Their agents, though, try to change the language to make it sound as if they do.

I was still a child when everybody knew that. A tornado struck nearby and we joined our neighbors in a caravan of pickups heading out into the darkness to be there to help when morning light broke. Nobody expected government to be there. And for many years afterward our families would drive by where the town should have been. The mothers would retell the story of the disaster to children staring through car windows into flat nothingness. We didn’t need a memorial to know where it was.

Heroism, compassion — be grateful there are still people out there who don’t know the meaning of the words.

— Craig Ladwig


James Boyd White. When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community. University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Joseph Epstein. “My Fair Language.” Claremont Review of Books, summer 2012.

George Orwell. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon, April 1946

Tom Wolfe. The Right Stuff. Picador, 1979.

Bob Lewis. “Obama Overstates Kansas Tornado Deaths.” The Associated Press, May 8, 2007.

Udall, Kansas.,_Kansas (last viewed Aug. 26, 2012).


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