Words Are Important

By Paul Heney

As this election season drags on, I’m hoping for a politician who will rediscover the power of words.

Over the past few decades, there has been an increasing resentment towards intellectual thought and speech in our society. A lot of it seems to have come through in attacks on the left by the right, but I don’t see this as strictly a one political party thing. Some of it is due to the dumbing down of America by the mass media and some of it is a result of our intellectual laziness.

In her new book The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby explores many of these issues, and it is a fascinating read. She begins by skewering the use of seemingly harmless words and phrases, and I’m not sure I’ll ever look on some of them in quite the same way.

One example is the term “folks.” I’ve used it for years, and it has a feel of wholesomeness, almost an old time, Americana vibe. But Jacoby explores how the use of casual colloquialisms like folks in our national political discourse is the antithesis of serious, respectful debate and conversation.

Her pleas sound like that of a grumpy old grammar teacher, until she provides examples of speeches by FDR calling for wartime sacrifices and George W. Bush reassuring the American people after the 2005 London terrorist bombings. Insert Bush’s frequent use of “folks” into FDR’s fireside chats, and you realize how overly simplistic our politicians have become. (In the interest of partisan fairness, do some Google searching … you’ll find “folks” being bantered about by Democrats, too, from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi to Michelle Obama.)

The other fascinating term being used a lot by the media is “troop” (and “troops”). Jacoby digs into this, as well. I’ll confess that for the longest time, I didn’t quite understand what these words meant exactly, and rather thought that troop was a collective noun (rendering “troops” rather grammatically challenged). I suppose I was perhaps confusing the word with platoon or regiment. But commentators on the nightly news simply use the term troop and troops in place of soldier and soldiers.

I’m not sure how this started, but one thing is clear: Soldiers are much more readily identified as individual human beings. Troop is so much more generic and anonymous sounding. Hearing that 28 troops were killed last night in a war zone sounds bad, but hearing that 28 soldiers were killed certainly has a more immediate effect on me. Perhaps this is yet one more way that we choose to shield ourselves from the horrors of what we see on the news every night.

In this new area of Facebook and LinkedIn, I sometimes wonder if our language will be further dumbed down into text-messagelike snippets. As much as I embrace these new social networking sites myself, I sometimes have to tell myself to pick up the phone or meet someone for dinner, so we can have more of an intellectual conversation. Something that’s about more than sound bites and gossip — something that’s real.

[Editor’s Note: For more book reviews and recommendations, see the ASBPE Bookstore — or visit the ASBPE GoodReads group, where you can see members’ ratings and reviews and add your own.]

Paul J. Heney is editorial director for Questex Media’s Hotel Group, which includes Hotel & Motel Management, Hotel Design, and Luxury Hotelier. A member of the ASBPE Cleveland Chapter board, Heney served as national president of ASPBE from 1999-2003. He is also president of TABPI, an international B2B think tank that promotes B2B journalism and professionalism.

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