Half Past the Month

April 11, 2022

Words That Have Failed Us

WE KEEP A LIST of dead words, that is, words that have lost meaning through overuse, misapplication and a general inability to illume.

I won’t bother you with the full list but here is one example: We do not allow the use of “very.”

Anyway, you get the idea. Regular readers will remember that last year we announced the demise of “hypocrisy,” a perfectly innocent word of the most respectable Greek origin that this generation of politicians has rendered meaningless.

What you might not know is that there were earlier attempts to eliminate “hypocrisy.” In fact, in 1711 the British made it illegal. “The Occasional Conformity Act” outlawed the hypocrisy of taking Anglican sacraments for the purpose of holding public office, access to which was otherwise prohibited for non-Anglicans such as Congregationalists and Baptists.

Now, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has wiped out not only a single word but an entire class of words.

Previously, especially in its editorials and television monologues, American discourse was filled with what grammarians recognize as “modal verbs.” These are verbs used to express modality (properties such as possibility, obligation, etc.)

They were used to tell others what they “should,” “shall,” “may,” “might,” “ought,” “need,” “could,” “had better,” and “must” do. They implied intellectual or moral superiority, that and they fed the delusion anyone actually cared what the so-called opinion-makers were saying.

The charade is over. For when the tanks began to roll, there was the realization, or rediscovery — suddenly and universally — that there are people in the world who do not behave as if we all are on a CRT picnic retreat. To say it another way, one day exhorting and shaming seemed a good strategy, the next day it did not.

An incident related by Jeff Benedict in his book “The Dynasty” will serve as the simplest of illustrations.

On a 2005 visit to Moscow, Bob Kraft of the New England Patriot and other American businessmen were granted a meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president asked to see a Super Bowl championship ring that Kraft was wearing. When Putin was handed the ring, he expressed admiration and after the cameras turned away — whoosh — he put it in his pocket and left the room surrounded by heavy security.

Kraft, who valued the ring at about $25,000, was apoplectic. He told friends that Putin had stolen his ring, saying something to the effect that Putin ought to have known its sentimental value, that he shouldn’t have taken it and he had better return it. The State Department eventually had to tell him it would be better if he considered the ring his gift to Putin.

Note all the modalities in that story? Pretty much a waste of breath, huh?

Kraft concluded as much and released the following statement: “President Putin, a great and knowledgeable sports fan, was clearly taken with (the ring’s) uniqueness. I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and leadership.”

So here at The Indiana Policy Review we won’t be using modal verbs anymore or letting autocrats handle our jewelry. — tcl


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