January 8, 2006
When words have agendas of their own

Among the Hurricane Katrina photos that continue to haunt me were those two--you remember the ones--of people slogging through chest-deep water, carrying food. You remember the captions, too: the white people, “finding (food),” the black man “looting.” Just for a minute forget the ethics of ownership versus need or what someone might have to do to stay alive in such an extreme situation. Forget the societal divisions festering just below the surface. Simply think about this: words aren’t neutral; they take sides.

“Change a word and you change the atmosphere,” says Askold Melnyczuk, reminding me of William Blake’s words, “Damn braces: Bless relaxes.” Melnyczuk is the founding editor of the literary magazine Agni, director of the UMass Boston Creative Writing Program, and a recipient of a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. His first novel, What Is Told, was listed as a New York Times Notable Book and his second, Ambassador of the Dead was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year in 2002. When we meet, we talk about how often words are used to narrow, rather than broaden, our understanding.

“There seems to be no weight to words anymore,” Melnyczuk says. “There has been a reinvention of language. Deeds used to precede words.”

Now he and I talk about how words have taken the lead, springing ahead of deeds to become slogans that hurry us to pre-ordained conclusions or frame what is in front of our eyes. Think of how our news, for example, is filled with talk of “insurgents” and “terrorists.” If CNN had been around in 18th century England, the insurgents and terrorists surely would have been Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and all those others better known to us as patriots. And have you noticed when we read now of military casualties, it isn’t “soldiers” or “Marines,” or any other individual person, but rather the vague, sanitized “troops” who are killed or injured? I’ll admit it took me a while to catch on that “a troop” was actually one human being, not some military unit like a battalion or division. Just one human being.

Of course we see mundane examples every day of how words are played with fast and loose, their meanings casually suborned. An inconvenience or service cutback becomes a way “to serve you better (Have a wonderful day).” And “new and improved” is not likely to mean something good.

And, as, Melnyczuk and I note, when words are devalued, writers are left with less to say that means anything; our first line of defense against doublespeak is gone.

“In totalitarian countries.” he says, “the joke used to be that the evidence that poetry was important was that poets would get locked up. Poets in the West regularly envied Neruda that he could get exiled for what he wrote.”

No one gets locked up or exiled for poetry here, and that’s good news. But it also shows how our words have been defanged, housebroken for the benefit of anyone with a product or point of view to sell. Of course words aren’t only for use in public . They keep us close to one another privately, too, as Melnyczuk shows us in this poem:

And So

amid the loved lost causes,
the revival of the classics,
the classless society,

you work on a dirge
for the language your
grandmother loved you in:

snih, trava, lyubov . . .

We can only start with our own words and use them carefully to say what is real. If we don’t protect them, how will we talk to each other.?

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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