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What’s in a word?

Early during my tour in country I began feeling discomfort with one of my wisdom teeth. As it turned out, it was impacted and the Navy dentist suggested that while he was taking out the tooth he may as well “get “em all at the same time,” and I agreed.

The next day I reported to sick bay and about 15 minutes after I settled into the dentist’s chair the bad guys began shelling the facility with their Soviet made rockets. A few minutes later, Murphy’s Law took hold of the situation and the base lost all electricity.

The dentist had little choice but to finish his work by using a non-motorized hand or pump drill. He stopped giving me Novocaine about two hours into “the procedure” and I emerged from the dentist chair several excruciating hours later looking like a chipmunk with the mumps.

Our squadron flight surgeon grounded me for about a week because I could neither put my aviator’s helmet on over my swollen cheeks nor speak clearly enough to be understood over the radio.

With little to do, I decided to write about my experience in the dentist’s chair, and titled my first short story, “The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.” Pretty clever, eh? It was then that I began to discover the richness of the English language, with its many subtleties and nuances. Which is a rather long introduction to today’s topic – words, meanings, and semantics. So let’s take a quick look at how we use some of the 500,000 non-technical words in the English language.

I cast my vote based on principles, while I know that those who hold a different political position base theirs on ideology or dogma. Your friendly Lexus dealer advertises “pre-owned vehicles,” never “used cars.” Does anyone know what occupation prostitutes state most frequently as their “profession” when being taken to the station house by the police? Why they’re all models, of course! It’s no wonder why so many young women who write “model” as their profession on a job application are sometimes viewed with a wary eye.

If I attend the IMAX Theater in Denver to watch a documentary about tribal Africa and the screen happens to be filled with naked black women, it’s called ethnography. However, if I drive three blocks south to Colfax Avenue and pay $10 to watch naked women in a dingy little theater, it’s called pornography.

Did you know that bawd, concubine, coquette, courtesan, harlot, shrew, termagant, wench and witch at one time applied to both sexes? Yet today these terms are the exclusive domain of women. Elizabethan literature made frequent use of the term “she-witch,” in order to distinguish between a male and female witch.

Much of our language is chauvinistic because women have for so long been second-class citizens, which is why courtesan, coquette, concubine et al shifted in meaning to refer to women only, sometime in the late 1600s. The same manifestations hold true with certain derogatory words in usage today.

The aristocracy and the nobles lived in cities, which is why many disparaging terms and words received their meaning by ascribing certain qualities to non-city people. Villain comes from rustic, heathen from country-dweller, and boor originally meant a farmer. Even the word bumpkin when preceded by country has now become redundant.

For years the city councilmen of Philadelphia protested that there were no slums in their fair city. There was some “substandard housing,” but certainly not slums. Language is a blending of history, culture, bias and prejudice. Just like those councilmen in Philly, speech reflects the thoughts and ideas of those who hold power.

Language tells us so much about history and the existing attitudes of the times. For example, when did the phrase “political correctness” come into vogue? If memory serves, political correctness gained currency a few years before we heard the now famous phrase, “That depends upon what the definition of “is’ is.” But I won’t belabor that point.

One man’s patriot is another man’s agitator. Was Benedict Arnold a traitor or a hero? I guess it depends upon which side of the Atlantic one lived on. The next time you watch an old, old movie, circa 1930, pay special attention to how the word “gay” is used.

At the top of this commentary I referred to our adversaries in Vietnam as “the bad guys.” Yet I’ll bet that if you had asked a Vietnamese peasant back in the late ’60s about the phrase, his concept of “bag guys” probably would have varied about 180 degrees from mine.

The use of words is fascinating. During the exhausting dispute over Iraq and its weapons, I often wondered how differently the debate would have been framed if the press had taken to using the correct term “U.N. verifiers” instead of inspectors. Remember, Hans Blix was sent in under U.N. Resolution 1441 to verify, not to inspect.

A thousand years from now, historians and archeologists will discover terms and phrases that will surely leave them puzzled, e.g. did the man take the bus, or did the bus take the man?

We have a fascinating language, and as English becomes more prevalent the world over, it will continue incorporate words and phrases from the four corners of the globe – if a globe can indeed have “four corners.”

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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