JL’s comments on Freddie’s comments on Stephen Fry’s thoughts on language afford me an opportunity to link to what I believe to be one of the best sketch comedy pieces ever committed to tape (the very sketch Fry refers to in his own piece), from two of the greatest comedic minds of the last 25 years:
If you’re not incapacitated by the time Fry gets to the “hulk of a charred Panzer” I’m afraid there’s no hope for you.
But Freddie doesn’t believe this to be any laughing matter, and I agree with him that to lose specificity and the ability to discriminate with language would be a terrible thing. I just don’t think it’s happening. JL is right that it would be bad if, through the evolution of language, torture were reduced to enhanced interrogation. But is that reduction really occurring?
We are by now accustomed to hearing that the experience of living in a social order is largely constituted by the language in which we articulate that experience, but the truth is the the two (the experience and the language) are mutually constitutive. Eliminating the term “torture” from our discourse (and bear in mind, this is a long way from happening) may have any number of detrimental effects, but one thing it will not do is conclusively eliminate the experience of torture. There is a qualitative difference between being grilled by Vincent D’Onofrio and having bamboo shoots shoved underneath your fingernails, and not just because we say so, but because there simply is and always will be for anyone experiencing the two.
Torture is an extreme case, but I think Freddie’s fears are misplaced even in the less-incendiary case of “anticipate” vs. “expect.” It may be irritating to be surrounded by imprecise language (and I may change my tune when I start grading papers and final exams in the coming weeks), but I see no reason to fear that the need for precision will never be finally excised from language. Human experience is endless in its variety, and individuals will always need ways to articulate that variety not just to express it to other people, but to make it coherent and understandable to themselves. Language will continue to change as we use it, even for the most stauch defenders of current (or past) usage. Losses in some areas will be compensated for by gains in others.
While I won’t go as far as Fry and advocate open contempt for orthography, I do hope we always maintain a certain amount of mushiness in language. After all, that’s what makes humor possible in the first place.
There is more to be said on this topic, and a great deal more to be said on one closely related, which is the increasingly popular “linguistic analogy” in moral psychology. If I can find the time there will be more to come on this in the coming days, along with a rant or two about Jon Stewart if he continues to say stupid things.