Just What Does THAT Mean?

August 1, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

I’m a writer.  As such, words and their uses are important to me, and it bugs me when I hear them used inappropriately or in ways that I know are wrong or intended to mislead.  It’s like an itch I can’t scratch.  Most of the time, I let them slide, because I know there’s nothing much to be done and I don’t wish to sacrifice what little sanity I have complaining about Other People’s Ignorance and/or Language Abuse.

But the other day I listened to an essay by Jeff Nunberg.  He’s a linguist and I usually catch him on NPR on the Frech Air  program.  This piece was about the word–the term–Lifestyle.

Nunberg has a new book out about the way in which the Right has stolen language in politics in the last couple of decades, and he lays it out clearly the way in which a masterful job has been done by those not liberal to take the “high ground” linguisitically in our national debate.  The book is called Talking Right  and it’s on my list.  I’ve been listening to Nunberg for years on this subject, so I think I know what the book contains.  I recommend it to all and sundry.

His piece on Lifestyle centered on its use as a substitute label socially and politically for discussions about choices and the way in which the word has come to denote everything about us.  Our politics, our spending habits, our taste in clothes, even our personal hygeine and sexual preferences.  The latter got me thinking.  Nunberg points out that it is absurd–but effective–to speak of “the homosexual lifestyle” since the term “lifestyle” connotes that one has a choice about it.  We don’t really hear anyone talk about a heterosexual lifestyle–as if there is only one.  But the fact that it is not spoken of that way actually does suggest that there is only one and that anyone who hasn’t chosen a homosexual lifestyle is automatically in the heterosexual lifestyle category.  (We hear about married lifestyles, single lifestyles, and so forth, but there are whole suites of behaviors subsumed under those terms the majority of which have little to do with sex.  When there is a variation, the term lifestyle drops off–open marriage, monogamy, polygamy, polyamorous, bisexual: we rarely ever see these terms coupled with “lifestyle”, presumably because…well, I’m not sure why.  Choice here is obsviously presumed, whereas with homosexuality the presumption is less clear–do gays “choose” to be gay or are they born that way?  Use of the term “lifestyle” becomes a wish, a prayer, a hope on the part of the one using the term that maybe, like those other choices aforementioned, gays can at some point stop doing it, be reformed, convert to “normal”….)

It’s a ridiculously sloppy term.  Most people never get to choose their lifestyle–that takes money, freedom, self-awareness, opportunity.  Most people have what they have.  It’s not a style, it’s a circumstance.

But as a marketing term, it’s powerful.  It hands people the assumption that they can choose, and then drives them into spending frenzies most can ill-afford in order to live that choice.

There are two other popular expressions we hear from our politicians on regular bases that make me cringe.  I heard one this morning.

“We are closely monitoring the situation.”  Or watching or observing.  Okay.  And?  Just watching something doesn’t really mean anything, but by claiming to do so “closely” implies action.  It suggests that the might of our intense scrutiny has the power to effect circumstances.  But in fact, unless such watchfulness is backed up by something concrete, it means nothing. 

“Yeah, I saw that,” would be more honest, but obviously doesn’t let the speaker off any moral or ethical hook.  But “closely monitoring” seems to do so, as it gives the impression of responsible attention leading to solution.

But my problem is with the reverse–so what about those things you do NOT “closely monitor” but which perhaps you should?  Like the appointment of a director to FEMA…?

It’s a vacuous phrase, over-used by people in public who may well not be able to do anytinig about a situation, but can’t say that and do not wish to appear ineffective.  Worthless rhetoric.  Verbiage that takes up space in which something meaningful and constructive might be said.

The other phrase I would like to take this opportunity to beat up on is one that I’ve been hearing for going on, oh, maybe 25 years.  Maybe longer.  Maybe I only began to notice it 25 years ago.  You hear this one during investigations.

“You failed to do such-n-such.”

Ken Lay failed to tell the truth to his stockholders.  Ollie North failed to disclose documents to Congress.  So-and-so failed to file tax returns.

No, they didn’t fail.  To fail at something, you have to try–and not make it.  No attempt in these cases was made to try to tell the truth.  In fact, in many, the exact opposite is the case–they tried to lie, they tried to hide documents, they tried to cheat on their taxes.  They SUCCEEDED.  No failure occurred.  They simply did not do something.

There are vast implications attached to the expression “he/she failed to do such and such” which are misleading in the extreme.  In this case, I think it gets used because it sounds…what?…polite?  Better than saying, “Mr. Corporate Exec, you lied.”  Lie, cheat, deceive.  These would be appropriate verbs.  Fail is a misleading cop-out.  No, the corrupt CEO did not fail to do anything–except avoid getting caught.  If he didn’t know how to do something, mistakes happen, that’s one thing, and maybe that is originally where the use of this phrase began, but it is used now for EVERYTHING.  “You failed to not pull the trigger.”  “You failed to threaten the victim with nonlethal force.”  “You failed to leave the woman’s clothes on after she screamed and indicated her refusal for consensual sex.”  “You failed to keep your clothes on in the motel room with the minor.” 

And then, of course, they all failed to confess.

I think we should be a bit more intolerant of language that purports to mean one thing when in fact it means either nothing or something completely different.  When the president says “We’re monitoring the situation closely” a reporter should ask  “Do you mean you don’t know what to do?”  or  “Does that mean you were unprepared for these events?”

Or perhaps I’m simply failing to hear the meaning latent within the obfuscations.

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Category: American Culture, Language, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. high and mighty says:

    I enjoy the english, or american language. it is flexible, expanding and, since the sixties, contracting. It is a dynamic thing. new words are added, words that once held a certain place in diagramming, now hold that place and others, and meanings are added to existing words. It is an exciting language, full of life and vibrancy.

    it seems a given that the manner in which a thing is phrased or posed can influence the hearer. Language will always be used to best effect by all ideologies in the perpetual battle for the mind. Ruthlessness will be observed at all times, and the marquis of queensbury rules have been suspended.

    Incidentally, psychology tells us that same sex is at times genetic, at times enviromental. Anthropoligists tell us that any given population contains five percent homosexual persons, so heterosexuality is the norm, and so "normal" (high is hunkering down behind the sandbags and pulling up the bridge that spans the moat)

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    As regards human sexuality, my own view is that I don't know if homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or not, but I am certain that bigotry is. Religious fanatics have a choice between displaying their bigotry by ranting about other peoples' alleged sins, or minding their own damn business: their lifestyle choice is to choose the former.

    The best argument I've heard, so far, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice is something I heard from a homosexual: given all the social and legal negatives associated with being a homosexual, why would anyone choose it if they had a choice not to?

    Also, according to my neighbor — a graduate student in elementary education — kids become aware of their sexual preference at a surprisingly young age: most know by the time they are 6-8 years old. Since this is obviously many years before they begin having sex, it strongly suggests that sexual preference is not merely a lifestyle choice. As I recall, she also said there is no credible research to support the assertion that sexual preference is merely a lifestyle choice. There is disagreement about how much is nature and how much is nurture, but for the overwhelming number of people, it is clearly not a lifestyle choice. Indeed, to say that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice suggests that heterosexuality is also a lifestyle choice, and it seems doubtful many heterosexuals would agree with that statement.

    Here's another fact to consider. Erika mentioned in a recent post that social conservatives have created life-long registration systems for sex offenders. But if sexual practices that are deviant to the point of being criminal are believed to be permanent afflictions — i.e., not merely lifestyle choices — then why would male/female sexual preference be any different? Indeed, does it not seem paradoxical that the people who declare homosexuality to be merely a lifestyle choice are often the very same people who most strongly support sex offender registries (i.e., and, presumably, the idea that sexual deviance is not merely a lifestyle choice)? So, the next time you hear someone ranting about homosexuality being a lifestyle choice, ask the person if he or she favors life-long registries for sex offenders: if they do, then use it to challenge their assertions about the mutability of male/female sexual preference.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Yes, "closely monitoring" means the same (it usually seems) as NOT closely monitoring. Whenever a phrase means the same as its opposite, it probably means nothing at all, as you have pointed out.

    See also the titles of many major pieces of legislation (Defense of Marriage Act, Clean Skies Initiative). These titles have the same effect as you've discussed above–their use makes it SEEM that the bills supporters are actually trying to accomplish those things connoted by the titles.

    As we know, though, they are failing to live up to those titles.

    And I'll be closely monitoring the media for further misuse of language.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's comment: Republicans lawmakers are notorious for using misleading titles on their legislation (the deceptively misnamed "Patriot Act" quickly comes to mind), whereas Democrats tend to use much more straightforward titles (the McCain/Feingold Finance Reform bill is one example). Bush takes this practice to an extreme with his liberal use of undefined expressions such as "terrorist," "enemy combattant," "'victory' in Iraq," "we don't 'torture' prisoners," "evil doers," "Axis of Evil," etc.

    This parallels the language games that many Christian evangelical preachers play with terms such as "sin," "miracle," "saved," "pro-life," etc.

    The use of such language no doubt says more about the intended audience than it does about the person using it: the fact that such language works — indeed, works very well — speaks volumes about the people who follow such leaders.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Phrases and words that mean absolutely nothing, or that have a very unclear meaning seem to appear everywhere in American culture, not just from the mouths of politicians and members of the mainstream media. I think someone has mentioned the "Freedom isn't free" as an example before– what does that mean? It sounds like we don't all deserve freedom, or that we have to pay for it somehow. Doesn't that oppose the very definition of "freedom"?

    High and mighty: I often feel very conflicted about the evolution of language. In many ways, the evolution of the english language has made it more efficient (with things like contractions and slang), and simultaneously more comprehensive (as it grows to include new jargon for technology, and other innovations). At the same time, "effeciency" can turn to sloppiness- we've all heard about the students who turn in english papers written entirely in netspeak- and a language with a large scope can become confusing- as you said, words take on different meanings over a very short period.

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