America needs a toxic waste containment facility for words.
I envision a linguistics hazardous materials squad swarming into a political rally or a talk-show studio, scooping up mind-destroying mutations of once-meaningful words and sealing them in lead-lined garbage bags. The bags would then be transported to the Daniel Webster Repository deep under Yucca Mountain in Nevada — only to be released back into human conversation after the 24,000 years necessary for the most toxic of the words to degrade and become harmless.
A panel of experts (basically me and my cat, Scooby) would select the mutant words to be destroyed. We would do so on the basis of three deep questions:
Can one in 200,000 Americans accurately define the original word?
Has the word been captured by one or the other army in the political/culture wars, stripped of actual meaning and sneaked back into conversations as an emotional hot button?
Does the weaponized mutation stir such fear, anger, disgust and self-righteous indignation among the innocently ignorant that they are motivated to make stupid posts on their Facebook pages.
Scooby and I have compiled a long list of these words, so we will be ready to take immediate action as soon as President Donald J. Trump signs the executive order to establish our authority.
A large number of the mutants are political attack words, now resurfacing for the 2020 presidential campaign — actual meanings sucked out through the years and replaced with alarming mental pictures. Voters on the far left have been taught to hear the word “conservative” and picture an old, big-bellied, self-centered white man with a lot of money, a lot of prejudices and a lack of human compassion. Voters on the far right hear the word “liberal” and see a do-gooder idealist in a tweed jacket and round, tortoise-shell glasses trying to turn America into a welfare state with no work ethic and a failing, over-regulated economy.
Neither word has much actual meaning anymore — particularly in an election year. Even worse are words like “socialist” and “reactionary.” Neither word has an agreed-upon definition that can be pinned down and discussed. Still, each label has a mutated emotional meaning so powerful to so many voters that the words are perfect hammers for smacking against someone’s skull to pop out a vote.
Scooby and I also have discussed a number of quasi-political and quasi-religious terms we may need to bury in Nevada. They include words such as “atheist” and “terrorist” and “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” (We considered confiscating the words “Christian” and “Muslim” because even the people who belong to these bodies can’t seem to get together on the definitions, but we chickened out.)
Among other inconsistently defined words and terms earmarked for review are “family values,” “fake news,” “feminist,” “faith-based,” “patriotic” and “socially acceptable.” These words and terms are not complete mutants, but often are used as emotional place-holders to delay debates until a speaker can calm down and figure out a good zinger reply.
Scooby and I know this whole idea is radical (a word we also might bury in Nevada), but we are tired of word mutations in the hands of socio-political (another term worth review for possible confiscation) manipulators brainwashing the great marginally informed (a potentially derogatory term that needs to be assessed or better defined) masses.
While we are not happy about this hobnail-boot approach to solving the problem, we see no realistic alternative. If we are ever to make America linguistically great again, mutant words must be confiscated and destroyed.
Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The (Columbus) Republic from 1998 to 2007.