How to Weaponize an Existential Threat

From The Wall Street Journal:

Those of us with the effrontery to set up as guardians of the English language find ourselves in the condition of the village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol, whose job it was to stand at the village gate awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The pay was low, the poor fellow was made to understand, but the work was steady. And so it is with us guardians—such are the relentless depredations upon the language that we are never out of work.

Not that our work is much appreciated. I have myself railed about the emptiness of the word “focus,” a weak metaphor taken from photography, when in all cases “concentrate” or “emphasize” will do nicely and serve more precisely. Despite my admonitions, the word continues to flourish in politics, sports and for all I know animal husbandry.

“Issue” is another word I have complained about. There are questions, problems and issues. Questions require answers, problems solutions. Issues are matters in the flux of controversy. So I implore you, don’t tell me you have “issues” with your knee or with your kids, when what you have are problems.

. . . .

Language guardians have long groused about turning nouns into verbs. An early example was “prioritize” from “priority.” This barn door should never have been left open, for from out of it have debouched the hideous “incentivize” and “weaponize.” The latter is especially popular just now, and pops up in such sentences as “They are weaponizing the Mueller report to use against the president” and “Weaponizing the Supreme Court against Congress is not what the Constitution intended.” It’s enough to disincentivize you from reading.

. . . .

Weaponize, incentivicize, fraught, existential threat: These are all what H.W. Fowler, that god in the pantheon of language guardians, called “vogue words.” “Every now and then,” Fowler wrote, “a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness or a merely potential and not actual existence into sudden popularity. It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can. His wrestlings with it have usually some effect upon it; it does not mean quite what it ought to, but to make up for that it means some things that it ought not to, by the time he has done with it.”

Such was Fowler’s description. Now his judgment: “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

27 thoughts on “How to Weaponize an Existential Threat”

  1. Congratulations, Wall Street Journal! You have published a column that is identical to innumerable other columns, bitching that people use words the writer, who is a delicate flower, doesn’t like.

    In keeping with the finest tradition of such pieces, he is wrong about “focus.” Its metaphorical use predates photography, or at least practical photography that was widely enough known as to generate metaphors.

    The complaint about “turning nouns into verbs” is incoherent. He seems actually to be complaining about the specific suffix -ize. This is indeed an old, albeit ineffectual complaint, going to the 16th century. But if he really means a general objection to the English language’s proclivity to convert words between nouns and verbs, with or without any change to their morphology, then he simply hates the English language. This is a basic feature of the language, and always has been.

    It is entirely possible that he does indeed hate the language. There is a strain of Madonna/whore complex to this sort of commentary. More likely, though, he merely complains about words that he happens to notice and thinks (rightly or wrongly) to be new.

    • Mr. Hershberger your claim that “focus” predates photography is irrelevant and also misguided, because the meaning, going back to the 15th century, had nothing to do with “concentrate” or “emphasize”, and that was Epstein’s point.

  2. Why is everyone categorized as a “Grammar Nazi” when he/she submits an opinion on what they think is essentially bad grammar or poor word choice? De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Language evolves, but presently it’s evolving in retrograde. That’s my opinion.

    • Maybe it’s simply evolving faster than ever because it is spreading all over and becoming the world’s language, not just the language of a few tribes. In the process it is shedding some of the writing rules of the olden times and regularizing more along the lines of the spoken language.

      Besides, the world itself is changing faster than ever; it only makes sense that language follow those changes or risk becoming fossilized and left behind.

      Adapt or die isn’t just for biological species.

      • I concur, but it never was a language of a few tribes; it was a language spoken by the educated and the not so educated.

        The only reason it’s shedding some of the writing rules is because many people did not want to bother learning those rules; perhaps too difficult or complicated for some. The English language has a surplus of words that are atrophying in our dictionaries because of nonuse; words that are more challenging for people who would rather use a more simplified, but less meaningful word. It’s for this reason the SAT college entrance vocabulary exams are eliminating words that they consider “obscure”, but in actuality they’re just too challenging.

        • Another good point. Any educated and discerning individual knows it is better to use a word derived from French than a word derived from those Angles, Saxon, and Jutes. And for linguistic exhibitionism, French leads us back to Latin.

          • Sure, but which latin?

            The patrician latin that faded from human history for centuries, the vulgar street version that the various tribes evolved into Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and (ahem) french. Or maybe the butchered mutation that came out of the Renaissance? It’s been a couple millennia since Gaius Iulius Kaesar did the weenie weedee weekee and overthrew the republic.

            Entropy always wins.

        • Could it maybe be shedding words and conventions that are fading into archaisms?

          Forsooth was left behind long ago and the calendar round these parts reads 2019. Not only are we up to the 21st century, but we’re nearly a full generation into it and it might be the young’uns have their own ideas about what 21st century english should be like, much like Shakespeare had his ideas about what 17th century english should be like, Chaucer or no Chaucer.

          Each generation wants its say in forging the future and the smarter ones pay attention to the by-now classic: “lead, follow, or get out of the way” and know when to bow out gracefully. (Before getting run over by the stampede of time.) Trying to turn back the clock doesn’t usually get folks very far.

          As a rule, the world runs as it wills, not as one would prefer. Or, as Ian Fleming put it, “Live and let die.”

          • I see it differently. I compare it to the advancement of technology, which essentially arranges everything so that we don’t have to experience it. In other words, simplify everything including intelligible, challenging and meaningful words, such as “prodigious”, “stupendous”, “wonderful”, for the au courant “cool”.

            It’s not about bowing out; it’s about simplification, the lowest common denominator, and the elimination of aesthetics in language. Nevertheless, the default response to all this: language evolves, as if the phrase itself is optimistic and enlightening, but for me it’s all about dumbing own the language.

            • I was on a three hour flight yesterday, and was again reminded that the technology arranged around me made it unfortunately unnecessary to fly myself. I fear it’s just another degradation of the truly ennobling to the au courant “Please board by zones.” But, in the age of suum cuique, what more can we expect?

            • (Shrug)
              As I said, the Romans had the same “problem” with Sermo Vulgaris. We all know which flavor prevailed across millennia. It’.s a lot like biological evolution: the broader the dispersal, the better the chances for survival to create (or influence, in the case of vocabularies) future generations.

              Cool is a rather interesting case unto itself because to those that believe in global warming cool’s original meaning would definitely represent goodness whereas hot represents danger. And in that ethymological framework, a “hot” body in today’s context, would represent a real danger to one’s emotions. 😉

              Don’t underestimate the semantic content of simplified vocabularies; simplification is useful in maximizing meaning and knowledge transmitted in a given bandwidth.

              Cybernetics isn’t just for computers.

              “Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary[1] approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”[2] In the 21st century, the term is often used in a rather loose way to imply “control of any system using technology.”[citation needed] In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and *communicate* with each other.”


              Language changes don’t happen randomly; new vocabulary and usage is driven by the environment of the times and what dismiss them as lazy simplification is to miss the context driving the new usage. Again, look into the history of cool’s alternative usage and you’ll find that while the alternate meaning originated earlier in the 20th century, it really only started to spread in the mainstream in the 80’s, after global warming replaced global cooling as the fear du jour.

              Look closely into the ethymology of slang words and you’ll find similar principles at work, with the most common usage reflecting a compression of meaning, entire phrases or sentences into a single word. And note that this process isn’t new or limited to english. It’s been going on through the entire history of humanity.

              No language is perfect and humans will continue to find new and more nuanced ways of expressing thoughts and feelings.

              Or at least until we evolve telepathic abilities.

              • (Yawn)
                Said like a true descriptivist: a circumlocutory, misguided and tautological response, which is precisely what I referred to in my previous e-mail.

                “Language changes don’t happen randomly; new vocabulary and usage is driven by the environment of the times and what dismiss them as lazy simplification is to miss the context driving the new usage.”
                Untrue, orthological changes mainly occur precisely from ignorance or mistakes.

                “…simplification is useful in maximizing meaning and knowledge transmitted in a given bandwidth.
                Cybernetics isn’t just for computers.”

                Doesn’t change the fact that it’s dumbing down.

                • We’ll have to disagree then. No meaningful exchange of information to be had, then.

                  Just consider that I did not resort to value judgments or set myself above anybody. Toodles. Enjoy your soup.

            • Here’s a fairly concise article on the origins and purpose of slang:


              Signature quote:

              “Slang emanates from conflicts in values, sometimes superficial, often fundamental. When an individual applies language in a new way to express hostility, ridicule, or contempt, often with sharp wit, he may be creating slang, but the new expression will perish unless it is picked up by others. If the speaker is a member of a group that finds that his creation projects the emotional reaction of its members toward an idea, person, or social institution, the expression will gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group. A new slang term is usually widely used in a subculture before it appears in the dominant culture. Thus slang—e.g., “sucker,” “honkey,” “shave-tail,” “jerk”—expresses the attitudes, not always derogatory, of one group or class toward the values of another. Slang sometimes stems from within the group, satirizing or burlesquing its own values, behaviour, and attitudes; e.g., “shotgun wedding,” “cake eater,” “greasy spoon.” Slang, then, is produced largely by social forces rather than by an individual speaker or writer who, single-handed (like Horace Walpole, who coined “serendipity” more than 200 years ago), creates and establishes a word in the language. This is one reason why it is difficult to determine the origin of slang terms. ”

              These neologisms serve a purpose, most often social but on occasion technological or political. They extend or redefine the borders of the language and improvee the efficiency of communication.

              For a good example look to the terms, “ghosting” and “ghosted”. In one word, they convey the idea that a relationship has ended, poorly, and one-sidedly rather than by mutual accord. It has died and the victim has become like unto a ghost to the perpetrator. “You’re dead to me.”

              That’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in that one word.
              Expect it to endure.

    • Why is everyone categorized as a “Grammar Nazi” when he/she submits an opinion on what they think is essentially bad grammar or poor word choice?

      Good point. Next we know, educated and discerning people will be resorting to Latin to identify each other.

      • Hmm, would that be a threat or a promise?
        Maybe they could wear a gold script-L pin, so you can see them coming a mile away. Like politicians with their flag pins.

        • Of course it does. Like others here whose intellect and learning can hardly be served by a single language, I sprinkle my prose with Latin and French. Gaze on me, simpletons, for I am the very model of the modern major general.

  3. “We’ll have to disagree then. No meaningful exchange of information to be had, then.
    Just consider that I did not resort to value judgments or set myself above anybody. Toodles. Enjoy your soup.”

    I never set myself above anybody; I just presented my opinion and described your comment as circumlocutory, which it was. You presented a non sequitur of irrelevancy on the word “cool”. You expounded and intellectualized a word that has no bearing on how it is used today, or on how it was illustrated in one of my previous comments.

    My point was very clear and succinct on how the word “cool” is used today compared to more robust and intelligent alternatives.

    Also, you might not have resorted to value judgments, but the last sentence of your last comment was a veiled, albeit venial, ad hominem.

      • Goodness gracious me!
        Why I never!

        What kind of compressed attack might be embedded in three simple, dumbed down words?

        I’ll have to warn my sister the chef to be careful the next time she makes soup at the resort.

        • Perhaps I erred; it wasn’t an ad hominem, I apologize. I sometimes confuse personal attacks with condescension.

Comments are closed.