When I was a little kid I believed in magic. Not tooth fairy/birthday wish/taking Communion magic, but for really real magic. For example, I was terrified to talk to myself when no one else was around because I was convinced that I would step in a specific place or make a specific set of motions with my hands while saying a specific group of words and unwittingly open up a portal to another dimension and no one would ever know what had happened to me or that they needed to locate a warlock to help get me back. On the other hand, I was perfectly happy to talk to myself while in the company of others. All the time. Maybe not my best decision ever. Also, as if your image of me as a weird child who talked to herself weren’t enough, I had a pretty large and varied group of imaginary friends. Yup, sure did. But I never gave any of them names, because what if there’s a real person with that name? And what if I fuck up their life by having my adventures with their invisible doppelganger? And then what if I meet them by chance one day or, horror of horrors, they’re really mad and hunt me down? And I have inadvertently started some kind of global paranormal war with my mind? With my words? Not worth it. So I gave all the imaginary friends numbers and became a writer. Seemed like the simplest solution, really.
Because, you see, words are magic. They’re the closest thing to real magic that we have, besides those things that we know science can prove but we haven’t figured out how to figure them out yet. So words and dark matter, I guess, are the closest things we have to real magic. You know that old “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” thing that we tell to children to keep them civil on the playground? That little nursery rhyme is absolute, unmitigated bullshit. But it works, for just a second, between the ages when they first learn to be mean to each other and around the time they start middle school, that singsongy nonsense works like a charm, doesn’t it? Gives them just enough confidence to let a little name calling roll off their backs before they become crippled by hormones and angst. Magic! Like a protective spell. Which I suppose is one of the most important parts of parenting magic, teaching them to build some armor on their own.
But a useful lie is still a lie. Words absolutely can hurt us, and do. And not even mean or nasty words. Not only hateful or pointed words. Who was it? Was it Carlin? I think it might have been Carlin who said “There are no bad words, only bad intentions.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. I think that there are words used with bad intent, absolutely, but some of the most painful words are the ones used with no thought whatsoever. The ones whose meanings either escape us or have been so clouded by time or misuse that we don’t even think about what they refer to anymore. These words tend to not feel icky because we’re so used to them. Or they feel icky, or taboo, or just plain wrong, but we can’t put our finger on why. So we toss them off as a part of normal conversation, with no bad feelings or ill will towards anyone, and not directed necessarily at anyone but the person to whom we are speaking. The point is that because we’ve stopped thinking about the origins of words, we don’t think about the groups of people they refer to as real people. They are merely adjectives. The ubiquity of disregard is what’s insidious.
And I’m not necessarily talking about slurs or name calling or even outright bigotry here, although those are the obvious examples. (And now you’re making a list in your head of the things you say every day. Good. Keep doing that.) No, what I’m talking about is careful word choice in general. Precise magic. Let’s take as an example a word I grossly overuse: just. “Just” is a handy little word. He can be a “just man” or it can be a “just cause.” As an indication of quality or quantity of actions: you could “just hang out” or have “just one more.” But used indelicately, “just” can be really negative. I’m “just a blogger,” therefore I’m not a real writer. Or my best friends are “just high school teachers,” implying that their profession is not important, or that somehow their opinions are worth less than someone with more flashy title. Someone’s mom is “just a housewife,” meaning that she doesn’t have a paying job, even though housewifery and motherhood are full-time and damn difficult occupations. He’s “just a kid,” so let’s excuse his bad behavior because kids aren’t people. Or in your own defense: “I just kissed her, honey; nothing happened.” (That one’s just an oxymoron, idiot. You’re busted. Deal with it.)
On a larger scale, we also use more overgeneralizations in everyday conversation than I’m comfortable with. I catch myself doing it all the time and I have to backpedal and qualify what I’m saying. It’s terribly time consuming. But I hear/see things like “All Republicans are assholes” (untrue), or “all Christians are dumb” (patently untrue), or “all English majors are doomed to unemployment” (this one is only a little left of center, actually). What drives me nuts about these sorts of statements is that when we say them we have a particular example in mind, and it’s usually the most visual or vocal or loudmouthed extreme that there is. If we were judging all Christians by the Phelps family, yes, we would conclude that they’re raging fucking morons. Or if we were measuring all Republicans by the state of Arizona, sure, they seem like assholes. But that’s incomplete, imprecise, and potentially offensive to the regular folks who are being lumped in with lunatics because the lunatics are all that the media feels they need to cover. This extends further than language, though, these overgeneralizations. There’s something about our psychology that loves a false dichotomy, that relies heavily on synecdoche. Take runway model A and compare her to normal adult human woman B (who is probably an overweight American in stretch pants). These are your only options, and you have to look one way or the other. Pick an avatar.
And words are grossly misused left and fucking right. I know that the argument over “literally” is kind of played out, but that one sticks in my craw. No, bitch, your head did not “literally explode.” Your head metaphorically exploded, which is the exact opposite of what you said, and the opposite of what I wish to see happen. When people use “literally” incorrectly, my first instinct is to stop listening to what they’re saying so I can immediately tell them why they’re wrong, which in turn makes me look like a pedantic asshole. I’m actually fine with that. I’ll take one for the team. Oh, and “ironically” crawls all over me, as well. When you go to a place because you think it’s dumb or buy a thing specifically so you can make fun of it with your friends or wear a shirt with a thing you don’t like on it, you aren’t being “ironic.” You’re doing those things “sarcastically.” And the fact that we’re substituting the word “irony” for “sarcasm” or “cynicism” is somehow supposed to make us feel better, I think. More intellectual, maybe, and less like apathetic dicks who can take no joy from things without tearing them apart. Alanis Morissette really screwed us as a generation, didn’t she? None of the stuff in that song would be considered ironic as much as unfortunate, or badly timed. But I suppose “I Have Shitty Timing and That’s Why Everything in My Life Goes Horribly Wrong” doesn’t exactly make for a marketable single title.
There’s a little piece in Louis C.K.’s special Hilarious when he rants a bit about how people talk nowadays. There are a lot of “blaaaaah, bluuuurgh” pukey noises in it, so I can’t really quote it here. Unfortunate, that onomatopoeia. But basically he says that we don’t give a shit about what we’re saying anymore. Word-like noises simply fall out of our heads, uncontrolled and without any forethought. It’s a good point, but consider the source. Comedians are mutants with highly evolved linguistic instincts and keen ears for bad word choice. Maybe this bothers me so much because I’m a writer (well, just a blogger, really). I don’t think it’s necessarily as important to your average joeschmoe guy, who has spellcheck and autocorrect and predictive texting on his side. (Which, for the record, does not solve your there/their/they’re problem, joeschmoe guy. These are not interchangeable. Not even a little bit.) We’ve gotten to the point where to be barely understood is all that is asked of us. Recently I noticed that a friend on Facebook asked another friend to lunch thusly: “have u 8?” Now, I understand that sentence, and you probably do, too. But it bothers me. It doesn’t bother me that we abbreviate in a 140-character society. It bothers me that we think this level of unintelligible gibberish is acceptable outside of texts and tweets, as a substitute for articulate adult discourse. It bothers me that people may not even notice, that they think that this is just how people speak. It’s like we’re devolving and soon we’ll just be grunting at each other while we grow cyborg parts to hold our smartphones, communicating with pictures of what we want for dinner and selfies that emphasize our boobs. Hopefully I’ll be dead by then. Sweet jebus, let me be dead by then.
Meanwhile, think carefully about the words you use. There is no magic word. They are all magic words. You may now commence to gleefully picking apart every word choice I’ve made in this post. Proceed.