27 October 2021

Shelf Life

There was a recent piece in the local paper about a homeless guy who was a crime victim, and the New Mexican referred to him as “unhoused,” which I’m assuming is a new locution.  Mind you, this is a guy my dad would have called a bum, plain and simple. We should take a look at some context.  There was a policy adopted a few years back – a few being relative, it might have been during the Reagan administration – to de-institutionalize the homeless.  Whatever guiding principle was involved, the proximate result was to dump a lot of people on the street who didn’t have survival skills.  What they had were serious drug and alcohol addictions, and unresolved mental health issues.  The problem hasn’t been much alleviated by successive social policies, and it doesn’t matter whether you change the descriptives to somehow humanize these people at the bottom of the food chain.  They’re still in bad shape, just the same.

I realize the anti-woke crowd would suggest that we’re getting overly sensitive to hurting people’s feelings, but it’s not about hurt feelings.  That’s to willfully misunderstand the framing of the argument.  Language is as much about the people applying the labels as it is about the people being labeled, if not more.  Spazz and ree-tard were in vogue back when we were in grade school, and they may still have currency, but if kids use them, they’d probably say they mean no insult to anybody who’s actually spastic or developmentally challenged; it’s exaggeration for effect.  The days are hopefully long past when we threw stones at the witless.  As for words (as opposed to sticks and stones), the same goes for Quentin Tarantino’s favorite noun, or any number of common slang epithets for gay guys or Jews, Italians or Irish or Arabs, and calling somebody a towelhead says more about you than it says about them.

Vocabulary goes in and out of fashion.  We use the term dial tone, but it’s untethered to physical reality, because who dials anymore?  Likewise, a word like Okie, which was specific to homegrown refugees from the Dust Bowl, and these days is as dated as The Grapes of Wrath.  (Except for those pesky refugees, the mojados who just keep coming.)

As a writer, and particularly a writer who’s done his share of period pieces, I’d be the first to admit that colorful language reinforces atmosphere, and authenticity.  Leaving aside the unhappy plethora of prithee, sirrahs in Sir Walter Scott’s medieval fables, he uses picturesque and homely lingo to honest effect in his Border stories, which are closer to his own time.  And for my part, I doubt if the Mickey Counihan stories would have the same gamy flavor if I sanitized the way he talks.  On the other hand, we recognize that even if this is “the way they talk,” common vulgarities perpetuate ugly stereotypes.  It’s not a matter of whether we say these things aloud or in secret.

Language is organic, not prescriptive.  It grows on its own.  The French have an Academy, to hand down the rules, but they can’t keep the weeds out.  I’m no big fan of eviscerating language, of diminishing its muscularity.  Why water your whiskey?  A lot of the time, there’s no real substitute for brute Anglo-Saxon invective.  But there’s a difference between talking dirty, and using language that’s offensive because it singles people out for ridicule, and diminishes them.  It cultivates lazy habits of thought: Jews are grasping, black people are shiftless, Mexicans are illiterate beaners.

We can retire usage, just like clothing.  I might still fit into those paisley bell-bottoms, but hopefully friends and family would stage an intervention.  Sentimental attachment only goes so far.  Enough with the hand-me-downs. 


  1. David, your article is only a few paragraphs long, which belies the depth.

    My father used to say if you can control the language and vocabulary of a people, you can control the people: Fake news, sleepy Joe, little Marco, socialist agenda, stroll through the Capitol, stop the steal, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

  2. Another anachronism we hang on to: tape, as in Tape an interview or Surveillance tape.

  3. Oh, Leigh, I was going to mention "tape" - I still use that when what I did was DVR'd a show on TV.
    David, I ran across the term "Okie" just the other day on the comments section of a conservative website article (I know, I know), in which the writer complained about how the current wave of $%*^ Hispanics was defiling the Okie tradition in California. I suggested he read Grapes of Wrath, but of course, that was assuming a lot of things not in evidence on his part.
    Use the language of the era you're writing, absolutely. But things have changed, and that's not a bad thing at all.
    Oh, and my favorite of the language used to control the people: entitlement culture, used to rail against Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Dear Sen. Manchin: I'm "entitled to them" because I PAID for them.

  4. I've worried about politicians hyping white monoculturism while attacking BLM. I used to think we'd gotten rid of ultra-right bomb tossers.

  5. I have known a person who became homeless because she was living with a fiance who suddenly turned on her to the point where she felt she had to leave, a few weeks before their scheduled wedding. Also, a man who had lived with his mother, who died, & his brothers ganged up on him & drove him to the county emergency intake office with a duffel bag full of his clothes & not much else. Also, a bona fide Hollywood actress who had acted in the film "The Blair Witch Project" but they ripped off her wounded persona for the film, & never paid her a cent. She ended up in a shelter. The first two of these people, had absolutely NO drug, alcohol, or mental health "issues".

    A couple of days ago I almost used a terrible, old-fashioned expression when talking about getting paid in fractional cents ... but I stopped myself in time & said the employer chiseled away at my paycheck!!


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