Favourite and Least Favourite Words of a Linguistics Nerd

The pen is mightier than the sword -Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

(And just as deadly in the wrong hands as Jack Nicholson’s Joker proves in Batman: The Movie).

Words can do many things. They can hurt an individual or they change humanity for the better or worse. They can be used to spread the truth and to spread lies. They can do untold damage or they can stir people into action. They can educate, indoctrinate and manipulate (hey, I’m a poet!). They can make you laugh and cry. They can cause calm or anger, or inspire fear or pride.

The media, for example, when describing a 14 year old will use the term “youth” if they are the perpetrator of a crime and “child” if they are the victim. When a pensioner is viciously attacked by 14 year old “youths”, is it more tragic because he is a war veteran? The media feels the need to tell us these things. But why? In order to appeal to our prejudices that such a hero deserved more protection than any other pensioner? Is a pensioner who did not fight in the war worthy of less respect or perhaps is it more acceptable as a crime? Of course not, and nobody would dare suggest this was the case but this is an example of how the media attempts to manipulate our emotional responses to be most favourable to their slant on the story.

Media manipulation annoys me no more than when it deals with scientific stories. Such stories usually start with the word “Boffins” or “Eggheads” that creates a very specific image that is a parody of scientific research and the findings of said researchers. They do nothing for the process of science and though such an approach ought to be damaging to their reputation as a serious newspaper, it only creates and maintains a parody of what scientists do.

Climate science is one of those big issues. During my time at university I wanted to understand how I felt about the environment. I was a neutral observer with no real opinion either way. During my first year, in my spare time I took to reading academic papers on environmental science. I looked at a wide range of data and even in my third year when I had less time yet a greater understanding of the data, I still sought to understand current research. So much so that I was convinced that this is a very real problem. Unlike perhaps a great many others who share my view that climate change is happening and is a danger to the planet, I do not trust the media outlets that I would otherwise be looking at to provide me with information. Most newspapers seek only to appeal to people’s pre-supposed prejudices – facts be damned, we want a juicy story and the more sensational the better. Yes, I feel the media has fallen that far. The Guardian is about the best for environmental reporting, but even they can be subject to poor reporting.

But I’m getting off subject…

Politicians manipulate words too. I’ve lost count of how many times Clegg and Cameron used the word “fair” to describe the social and economic changes they were trying to make at the beginning of the 2010-15 Parliament. Few feel they truly created the “fairer society” that they keep insisting was going to happen – the LibDem’s were punished harshly in the 2015 election for not being enough of a heart for the Tories, and some stupid decisions on the part of Vince Cable too. We’d heard it all before (empty words). Who knew that Labour’s “education, education, education” would mean trying to push everybody into university and create a labour shortage in other sectors?

But I’m getting off subject again…

And is there any word more corrupted (at least in the USA) than the word “liberal”? The OED defines it thus: willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas: favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms: favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform:. This is the definition as I have come to accept it (social liberalism) and I do not recognise the scaremongering use of the word by the political Conservative movement of our cousins across the Atlantic. The meaning there changes depending on what they want it to mean and is used interchangably with “Socialism” and “Marxism”. Words like “liberal” and “progressive” are tools of fear in the way that “Communist” was during the 1950s-60s, the way that “papist” was to the Reformers of the 16th century and “heretic” was in the middle ages.

Shut up and get on with it, what are your favourite and least favourite words?!

Truth is amongst both my most and least favourite words. Too many people claim to be in possession of it and so the word becomes meaningless. Conspiracy theorists have “Truth”, so does religion, the politicians and the media yet they are nothing more than manipulators. Though they may have part truth, their tactic is often to bury it within a lie or to twist the truth to support whatever they want to be seen. Yet truth, when it is pure and unmanipulated, can be the most powerful weapon we have. If the person using the word feels the need to capitalise it, chances are they are presenting a conspiracy theory to you.

  • Eoferwic pronounced Yoffer-wick. Doesn’t mean anything, it is the Anglo-Saxon name for the city of York. I just like the sound of it. I actually like far more Anglo-Saxon words than that, and Anglo-Saxon names such as Aethelred, Ulfwic, Aethalstan.
  • Bludgeon. One of those rare breeds of word that sounds like its meaning (but doesn’t qualify as onomatopoeia) – rather like flippant or shiny.
  • Pritt. As in the stick adhesive “pritt stick”. I don’t like the combination of “p” and “r” as it makes my mouth feel funny.
  • Didacticism. Do we really need such a complicated word for such a simple meaning?
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