The Naming of Things

October 28, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

I’d like to do a bit here on language.  Primarily on how we have seen it distorted over the last few decades.  According to George Lakoff and Geoff Nunberg, the Right has seized the rhetorical high-ground and driven Liberals into defensive postures by altering or subverting the meanings of certain words and phrases.  I tend to think that, yes, they’ve done that, but that also the people who are swayed by such verbal gymnastics are by and large pre-sold on the message.  Many of us out here never did buy into it.

But the effect of making those the Democratic Party has fielded to oppose them look weak did happen, even for those of us who could see through the bull shit.  Once you get someone to start backing up and apologizing for what he or she believes in, the game is over.  This happened to Kerry.  It’s happened to many others.  Republicans have manage to turn “Liberal” into a dirty word, which is bad enough, but the fact that Liberals respond guiltily by admitting, well, yeah, I am, or used to be, but I’m not really anymore, I’m more of a Centrist…

Bull shit.

The problem is that people tolerate euphemism in place of truth and after long enough it gets difficult to cut through it.

For instance, when Obama becomes president, I would like to see a reinforced Truth In Advertising policy.  It has escaped no one’s attention that we are having a bit of a problem with the economy.  Have been a long time now, ever since we realized that consuming happens faster when things are cheaper and cheaper things usually aren’t made here.  We have gradually become more of a service economy than a manufacturing power and this has frankly hurt.  Look at the automobile industry.  Good heavens.  (Let’s not even talk about shipping!)

I think it would be useful to start calling certain things by what they really are.  Chiefly, I am tired of financial institutions referring to things like loans and so forth as Products.  You hear it all the time on television and radio.  “We at the First Institutional Savings and Loan have many new and exciting products for our customers.”

No, they don’t.  A product is something you make.  A refrigerator or a stove are products.  A car is a product.  The computer I’m writing this on is a product.  (You could stretch the point and argue that the words I’m writing are a product, but I think that’s stretching things too far.  My thoughts are not products insofar as they don’t actually do anything anyone else can buy and use until they are translated into an Object you can take home and use.  Ergo, a book is a product, but the ideas therein are not.  Maybe that, too, is stretch, but we’re talking about the economy here, not philosophy.)

Shuffling paper around in different arrangements is not a product.  All they do is take something that has already been “made”—other people’s money—and package it for other to people to spend.  They have not made anything that is intrinsically useful by itself in the way that a can opener or a television or a barbecue pit is useful.

I bring this up because by misusing the term Product in such a way, it kinda sorta looks like banks are on some level manufacturers.  Instead of a service.  You might ask what real difference is makes, and that would be a good question.  Here’s a good answer:  when enough people begin to think and act as if those shuffled bits of paper possess the same kind of intrinsic value that a real Product has, they start swapping them around as if they were cars or lawnmowers, as if profit were something attached to these pieces of paper in the same way.  It leads to an economy of pure motion of money with nothing to base the presumed value of the money on—i.e. Products—and at some point the emperor’s nakedness becomes too evident to ignore and we have an economic meltdown.

Hmm.  Sounds familiar.

So enough of that, already.

I would also like to strike the term “He/she failed to disclose/report/act etc.” from legal language.  It gives the wrong impression.  So we don’t want to say “The Senator lied” because that’s rude.  But altering the phrase to “The Senator failed to disclose his tax returns (or the new house a contributor gave him)” makes it sound like the Senator tried to do the right thing, but just somehow couldn’t manage to do it.  It makes it sounds like it wasn’t really his fault, just, well, he had a bad day.

Bull shit.  The Senator lied.  He didn’t fail to do anything except not get caught.  He tried to not get caught and, gosh, here he is testifying, so I guess he failed at that.  But what he is accused of?  No, he didn’t fail to do the right thing, he didn’t even try.

Such euphemism debases the public discourse.  That’s a fancy way of saying that it erodes public trust.  Gradually.  Slowly.  Which is worse than a quick shock, because slow erosion might not be noticeable until the whole system starts sliding into the swamp.

Centrist is another term I’d like to do away with.  By however one defines the issues, anyone can be tagged as a Centrist.  What does that mean?  It means you’re so afraid of pissing people off that you waffle on important issues.  It means that if a problem requires a fix that is either very rightwing or very leftwing, you won’t talk about it unless you can leach out all it’s vitality.

How does this hurt?  Just look at some of the big pieces of legislation passed in the last 20 years in, say, education.  The problem is that we abandoned (or never had) the ability to offer education to prepare students according to their abilities in favor of a system that slots everyone into a college track, whether it’s right for them or not, and rewarding those who get through college with job opportunites they may still be unprepared for and casting those who either didn’t go to college or didn’t get in to begin with into the neverland of dead-end service jobs.  (Essentially, it is a paper shuffle, like the aforementioned banking practice of offering “products”.) The entire system needs to be revamped and probably more federalized than it is now.  Certainly local school board have become in some cases nothing but ideological battlegrounds…it doesn’t work except for those who are already predisposed to learn and needs to be trashed.  What do we do instead of telling the parents of the land that, in at least half the cases, your darling son or daughter ain’t never gonna be no Einstein no matter what school we put them in and acknowledging that some students, no matter what their I.Q., just ain’t never gonna give a damn about certain curricula and might be better off in shop classes learning to (wait for it) Make Products!  (What? Blue collar education for my little genius?  How dare you!)?  We make the teachers give endless tests to try to get total average scores up and pretend that those scores actually reflect what the kids actually know.  (Paper shuffle!)

Centrist bull shit.

(Likewise I think we should do away with Right and Left in all such debates, because these labels do nothing.  Once we allow that labeling is somehow constructive, actual constructive discourse is in danger of fleeing.)

Also in advertising I would like to see the use of the claim that “You can save money by buying this today!”  This is one we’ve been living with since television came around and it has always annoyed me.  Let’s be clear—you do not “save money” when you buy something.  You may spend less this week on the same thing than you would have last week, but you’re still spending.  This is ad-speak nonsense that twists things around to convince you to part with your dollars.  You may get a good bargain, but you  haven’t saved anything, they didn’t deposit the difference in your bank account, and you probably didn’t put it in the bank either.  This is perhaps a minor quibble, but it is part and parcel of American’s lack of understanding about the dynamics of market-based economies.

Which leads me to…

I would like to see the phrase “Let the Market decide” stricken from the language entirely.  I know this will never happen, because language doesn’t work that way, but really, what a load of horse hockey.

The Market decides nothing.  Never did, never will.  The Market does not have an intellect.  The Market is an effect pool, wherein the decisions of individuals vying for competitive advantage cumulatively result in an outcome.  But like the weather, these outcomes are feral, sporadically predictable, and never—NEVER—altruistic.  Letting the Market decide is like letting your car go where it wants without putting your hands on the wheel or taking your foot off the gas.  Occasionally it actually might get somewhere you want to go without killing someone in the process.  No one bothers to ask where the Market got its education.  No one bothers to ask who pays for “adjustments.”

This is a phrase used by people who want very much to be allowed to screw over anyone they think they have to in order to secure their presumed slice of the pie.  The assumption is that such avarice will be checked by competitors who will stop them because that would limit the competitor’s ability to get his slice of the pie.

Few ever really triumph in this game, but that’s not really the point.  The point is that those few are the ones who decide what the Market will do—it is not a natural phenomenon, is very hands-on manipulation by private citizens for their own benefit and to the detriment of those who can’t compete.

I don’t actually have a problem with that as such.  It does drive many of the plus-direction economic benefits of our economy.

But it leads to excesses and abuses against people who have absolutely no way of defending themselves from the consequences of market collapses—which happen cyclically and occasionally catastrophically, like hurricanes.  It is absurd to argue that something that is essentially brainless has the right to be left alone by regulatory entities.

Damn, people, the government is part of the Market, if for no other reason than by virtue of being a Customer.  To argue that it should stay out of it and let it run free is absurd.  (The free enterprise fans don’t let it run free—they do everything they can to manipulate it.)  And since the government ostensibly represents us, then it follows that such regulations as it may apply to this wild and mindless beast in order to protect our interest are not only prudent but essential.  We don’t let wild tigers roam free in city streets, do we?  Why would we be so gullible as to believe the Market, left alone, will look after our interests?

But the phrase gives full voice to the nonsense notion that there is a master plan, an overmind, a naturalistic intelligence that we must not cage, that the Market is somehow alive and should have rights.  It dumbs us down with a false image and lulls us into a false state of helplessness.

Controlling the Market is not Socialism, it’s common sense.  People who make a lot of money do not have a right to so at everyone else’s expense.

In that vein, I would like to do away with the term “CEO Compensation Package.”  I have no problem with the older term “Bonus” because they imply different things.  A bonus is by definition a reward for success.  A compensation package is a negotiated arrangement that is completely independent of performance, and judging by the way things have been going for some time now, clearly there is no relation between reward and success anymore.  I would prefer to call it Pillage.  In many instances, it is simply theft.  Calling it a Compensation Package renders it innocuous, with no real causal links to the destruction of a company.  It is a lie of effect.

I’m looking forward to a change in the way things are talked about.  I would like to limit the attempts of the corrupt in politics and business to hide what they do behind phrases that have legalistic or pseudo scientific auras about them that make them somehow less nasty than what they really are.  We don’t fully appreciate what language does to us when we accept it uncritically.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone to have things called what they are.

Well, it would hurt some I suppose.


Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Corruption, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Education, Fraud, ignorance, Language, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition, snake oil

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 (3)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Mark, I'm usually completely with you. But I've always considered a "product" to be something modified to provide value. If the thing itself is not physically tangible (such as the words in a new story) it still is the product for which people exchange symbols of value (money).

    Manipulating words, or batches of money, or computer instructions are all occupations that create an exchangeable unit of something from nothing more than mind. A well made loan can capitalize a business and revitalize a neighborhood; it produces.

    So it doesn't bother me to consider a loan as a product. Although I did suffer financially from having them bought and sold without proper labeling a few years ago. Silly deregulation.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Some observations and comments.

    I totally agree with you on the abuse of euphemisms in the current political/commercial arena. There are a few that annoy the crap out of me that are becoming more common.

    One is closely associated with internet advertising. The phrase "Learn more" when used to reference a propaganda or advertising site is one of my many pet peeves.

    While on a web site, you get a bunch of banner ads and many will have a link marked "Click her to learn more" or "Want to learn more? Visit for details". I even see this on tv ads. Prescription drug "Co-op" ad will have at url at the end like "To learn more about Pharma-Corp's new safe and effective sleep-aids go to".

    "Learn more" implies that you are to be educated, imparted with knowledge that you can use. In fact, the web sites, which are often hosted internationally are not under the regulation of truth in advertising and usually promote propaganda of the most extreme kind. They are trying to brain-wash you into buying what they sell, be that over-priced Chinese merchandise or stories trying to portray a presidential candidate as the "Manchurian Candidate" ( "Manchurian Candidate" refers to a novel and subsequent movie adaptations of the novel about an American POW that is brain-washed by Chinese scientists to become a "sleeper" agent who will betray his country after hearing a secret trigger phrase. The sleeper agent in the story becomes a presidential candidate.)

    Another disgusting abuse is "voting with your dollars" implying that capitalism is democratic by nature. Not the same thing. When voting with dollars, the people with more dollars have more votes, and they will usually vote for that which will bring even more dollars .

    I disagree on Centrists being non-committal wimps. I consider myself centrist, and have strong opinions about most things. I do not however blindly subscribe to the total package of ideas promoted by the right wing extremists nor do I agree totally with the left wing. I prefer to do my own thinking, thank you very much. I have observed over many years that addressing the needs of the majority of the population under the bell curve is much more effective that focusing disproportionately on the wants of the few at the fringes. It appears to me that the solutions that are oriented toward this majority are based on concepts that approximate the midpoint between the extremes.

  3. There's a time when people don't feel like using euphemism – when they want to attack an opponent, then the unabashed truth becomes superimportant.

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