Who Gets to Name the Snow?

July 29, 2014

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Who Gets to Name the Snow?

Here’s the fastest, surest way to identify the subspecies hackus punditus—watch for them to display one particular behavior, especially when deadlines loom during summer months:

They invariably begin one of their columns with the phrase “Webster’s dictionary defines…”

But while it is the end of July, I do have what I believe to be a fairly believable excuse for falling back on that old trope.

Merriam-Webster really has started on the path to defining “conservatism” as “bigotry.”

The intentional conflation of both words is hardly news at this juncture, but the Daily Caller’s been working this beat nonetheless. First they noticed that when you Google “bigotry,” that search engine supreme helpfully returns a definition that includes the word “right-wing.”

“Yet I was rattled when, in his new book, The Language Hoax, McWhorter challenged one of the sturdiest baseline beliefs on both left and right: that words matter.”

When confronted, Google blamed the Oxford English Dictionary and vowed to “flag” the result as “inappropriate.” (Google “flag the result as inappropriate” and you’ll turn up “do sweet dick-all.”)

 Then a ticked-off reader tipped off the Daily Caller: did they know Merriam-Webster was up to similar semantic mischief?

In its entry for “bigotry,” the unabridged dictionary at proffers “related words,” and sure enough, one of those is “conservatism.”

Questioned via email, an associate editor responded at some length. However, anyone who’s had the misfortune of corresponding with private or public sector factotums will immediately spot many familiar corporate-speak synonyms for “please kill yourself” embedded in her unfailingly polite message, rather like those lethal suggestions to “play a little game of solitaire” in The Manchurian Candidate.

“I would imagine millions of impressionable young minds go to this site to find definitions of words for school,” the Daily Caller’s anonymous complainant had written. “This is extremely dangerous and powerful.”

But is it?

I’ve always admired John McWhorter’s willingness, as a self-described “liberal Democrat,” to squirt Febreze on some of that tribe’s smellier orthodoxies.

Yet I was rattled when, in his new book, The Language Hoax, McWhorter challenged one of the sturdiest baseline beliefs on both left and right: that words matter.

Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is that belief’s foundational text. Its mantra is Alinsky’s: “He who controls the language controls the masses.” While few laymen have heard of linguist Benjamin Whorf, his theory that “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” is one most of us take for granted.

You know: “Eskimos have a hundred words for ‘snow’” and all that. Except they don’t. Yet that anthropological “arctic legend” seems so intuitively, poetically true that effectively debunking it has proven almost impossible.

On the other hand, Yiddish does indeed boast a gratuitous surfeit of synonyms for “moron,” at least as far as this philosemitic shiksa was once concerned—until, late-ish in life, I finally met, face-to-face, actual stupid Jews, whom I’d previously imagined to be as plentiful as, well, dodos.

And what about this fancy lady, who finds it significant “that Latin has only one basic verb for “laugh” (ridere), but many nouns meaning ‘joke,’ while in Greek the opposite is true. Greeks cackled, chortled, giggled, and guffawed; Romans told jokes”?