Archive for the ‘language’ Tag

Mightier than Swords   6 comments

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?


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Words have incredible power in the hands of good communicators. They can raise you to the highest heavens or drop you from 30,000 feet without a net. They can make you feel wonderfully competent or grossly inadequate. However, the power of words is not in the words themselves as in the power the listeners invest in them.

My first experience with the power of language was in realizing that language could be distorted so as to wield power over others.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was – maybe 10 or 12 – when my father began to have trouble calling himself a “liberal”.

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I grew up in Alaska where the discussion of politics is an indoor participation sport. The adults loved to argue politics and they thought it was their responsibility to teach the youngsters, so we were expected to pay attention and formulate our own opinions. Alaskans are and were actually really well-read. Long, dark, cold winters mean we have a lot of time for intellectual pursuits. We have great public and university libraries and they are well-used. This meant that much of what the adults were talking about was backed up by study.

My mom was a conservative non-partisan old-style feminist (she liked men, definitely wanted them in her life, but she didn’t think she should bow to them). My dad was a lifelong Democrat union organizer who would not recognize the Democratic Party of 2019. I knew my parents didn’t agree politically, but they weren’t at each other’s throats. When I stand back and look at it with a long lens, I think they really didn’t disagree on any of the big issues. Mom thought her money did her more good in her purse than in the pocket of some government official and Dad trusted the government a bit more than she did. Dad could call himself a Democrat and feel just fine with that. Mom felt she was lying if she promised fidelity to a single political party, so she was a registered non-partisan so she could vote for whichever party she preferred that election. That was about the extent of their political differences.

But in 1970, maybe 72, Dad foresaw where the Democratic party was headed and he started having trouble calling himself a “liberal”. He’d been struggling with this idea for a while when I overheard the conversation. How long is a mystery to me as Dad died before I was old enough to really pursue the topic, but he and my mom were talking about the McGovern campaign for President (1972) and Dad said he didn’t think the Democratic Party was still the party of liberals. He found the newest crop to be intolerant, abusive children who wanted a lot of stuff for nothing. Sound familiar? Yeah. He foresaw that. He didn’t know what to do about it and it bothered him, a lifelong committed Democrat, that he was expected to vote for policies and politicians who did not represent what he thought of as “liberal values.” (see the image above for the traditional definition of “liberal” and the image below for the modern progressive-liberal.

Mom hit it on the head that day when she said “They sound a lot more like the progressives from back when we were kids.” The conversation then moved onto whether the progressives were Republican (Teddy Roosevelt was) or Democratic (Woodrow Wilson was) and I don’t recall my parents exploring the change in the word “liberal” at the time. It stuck with me because I was already developing into a language geek and here was a word my dad had been using for 50 years that no longer had the meaning he associated with it.

Image result for difference between classical liberal and progressive

I know from my adult studies in history that the American progressives got their political and philosophical hats handed to them. They were completely discredited when they were infiltrated by the socialists and so, they spent a few decades in obscurity. They then came back in the 1960s, relabeled themselves “liberals” and took over the Democratic Party. They took advantage of the growing post-modern sentiments to claim “language has no meaning and we can define these historical words to mean anything we want.” Dad was sensing that change. Without the internet at the time, he couldn’t locate cogent arguments for why it was happening, but he knew it was.

When Hillary Clinton ran in 2012 and again in 2016, she used the more-correct term of “progressive” to describe herself, perhaps sensing that the term “liberal” had been flogged to death by the illiberal Democrats. That still doesn’t really solve the dilemma of people like me who subscribe the traditional liberal principles like freedom and self-sufficiency, but can’t use that term without invoking the warped definition of the word.

Dad’s lost word isn’t the only word that has been warped into a new meaning in the intervening years. My parents, who were young adults in World War 2, wouldn’t recognize how some people in our era define “fascism”, just as I now am perplexed by how some people define “racism” and “sexism”. This could be a much longer article if I focused on all of the word games post-moderns use to change the tenor of conversations. Dad’s struggle with the word “liberal” was my first recognition that how we use words can damage our relationships and ability to dialogue with one another. It stuck with me going forward because it’s always in the news and it involved some of my dad’s most fundamental beliefs and relationships. I’ve often wondered where Dad would stand politically today and I suspect he’d join Mom and me in the non-partisan camp, suspicious of political parties in general.

Words have meaning, which in the hands of good communicators comes with power, and in order for us to communicate, the meanings need to be understood by all. Unfortunately, the post-modern belief that words are malleable and the meaning can be changed whenever and however the user of the moment likes is harmful to meaningful communication. It’s one of the reasons Western society is tearing itself apart today. Some of us have redefined words to meanings that the users of those words never agreed to. Further, we misapply these redefined words to others without even bothering to find out if the words actually apply to them. Then some in society repeat those redefined words over and over in order to denigrate those they disagree with.

There’s a famous saying – the pen is mightier than the sword, meaning that the minds of people are won by persuasive arguments and not brute force. Words have power. The American revolution, according to John Adams, was wrought in the minds of the people (via the words of pamphleteers like Thomas Paine) a long time before the shot heard round the world on Lexington Green. I want to believe that we can make changes in society through reasoned debate on topics that affect all of us, but when we change the meanings of words without telling our rhetorical opponents, we game the debate process to our own benefit. It’s time we stopped that and agreed on a common vocabulary, so we can talk, know when to agree or disagree, and not have to make enemies of people whose words we redefined to mean something they didn’t mean.

Just a thought.

Don’t Talk with Your Hands Full   14 comments

What language have you always wanted to learn? Do you think you will try?

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My primary language is English, which makes sense since I was raised in America by American parents. BUT ….

Amercian Sign Language

I can speak a smattering of languages – my dad grew up speaking Swedish, my mother’s tribal language died out when I was a kid, but some words are still used … I grew up in an extremely diverse state where two Native American languages are spoken in a variety of dialects … I used to attend a church with a sizeable Korean congregation, so I know a few words (mostly to hear, not say) … I took Spanish in high school. I’m not conversationally proficient in any of them because you have to have people to practice with to get good at speaking a second language. At one time, I navigated a South American country and Mexico with my Spanish, but it was mostly that I understood what they were saying and could ask basic questions in Spanish. If you can speak relatively good Spanish, you can also cipher out Italian and Portuguese, so it’s actually a really versatile language.

In college, I needed a foreign language, but I couldn’t get into Spanish, so I took an American Sign Language course. I have cousins who are deaf and I always wanted to learn the language, but I wasn’t around them enough to get very good at it. It was apparently a language I was meant to learn because I picked it up really quickly. I am conversationally proficient and have managed to hang onto my vocabulary even during times when I didn’t have much practice.  There are times when Deaf prefer Hearing not to know what they’re talking about and then they sign really fast and in short-hand – like some rare dialect of Hungarian. I can’t go there, but otherwise, I do pretty well. I’m “on the continuum” of signers in that I can comprehend most ASL, even in full ASL grammar, but I tend to sign in the telegraphic Pidgeon Signed English. The Deaf are generally okay with that and it is still understandable communication.

American Sign Language is beautiful and adaptable and I taught my children and husband so we could say things in public without being overheard. Even our dogs learned some signs because dogs respond well to hand signals and they have the comprehension skills of about a three-year-old child. Again, in a community with a diverse population, I have a fair opportunity to practice my second language. While ASL is not a universal language (sign languages differ from country to country), it does help its speakers to learn how to communicate non-orally, which I have found very useful when dealing in languages I don’t speak. I’ve used it in combination with a smattering of phrases while traveling in Germany and South America (there I did have Spanish, but the sign was very helpful) and fellowshipping with many other-language speakers in church communities.

I would really like to refresh my Spanish and learn more Swedish. I would need to concentrate a lot of attention on that, so I probably won’t actually accomplish those goals. But I plan to continue speaking ASL for the rest of my life. That is probably why I included a family of Deaf in Transformation Project and so there are many signers in Emmaus and I try to mirror the grammar to the best of my ability.


In a Manner of Speaking   2 comments

Idioms – figures of speech – For example, what does “in a New York minute” mean, where did it come from, what does it mean to you? (I think this might be a fun way to highlight our different cultures).

I was raised by a North Dakota farm girl. For the purposes of this blog post, we can assume that my father was a mute because he just didn’t contribute to this topic.

My mother, however, had an idiom for every occasion.

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Every language has its own collection of wise sayings. They offer advice about how to live and transfer underlying ideas, principles and values of a given culture or society. Short ones are called “idioms” while longer ones are sometimes called “Proverbs”. These “figure of speech” often call up mental images that convey a metaphor that matches what the person speaking wants to convey.

So, here are a few of my mom’s favorites and my adult interpretation of them.

First, dealing with “In a New York minute”. Mom would not have ever used that idiom, but my husband does. Mom wouldn’t have understood the metaphor. My husband, having lived in New York, does. When you get off the airplane in Newark, you can feel it. Suddenly everyone is walking faster than you are. A New York minute is probably only 30 seconds long. Things happen fast there.

Now for Mom and her many idioms, of which these are only a selection.

Image result for image of idiomsA penny for your thoughts – a way of asking what someone is thinking. In 2016, a penny’s worth of thought wouldn’t even make a word. It does go back to a 1522 writing by Thomas More referring to when a wise man has fallen silent and, in order to garner his wisdom, money is offered.


Barking up the wrong tree – Looking in the wrong place. Accusing the wrong person. This always puzzled me as there are not a lot of trees in North Dakota. However, my friend’s hound dog will continue barking up a tree at a squirrel that has long ago scampered away, so I can see the meaning.

Best thing since sliced bread – A good invention or innovation. This also puzzles me as homemade bread that you slice yourself is SO superior to store-bought sliced bread.

Burn the midnight oil – To work late into the night, alluding to the time before electric lighting. My mother grew up without electric lights, so probably understood the metaphor more than most of us do.

Caught between two stools – When someone finds it difficult to choose between two alternatives. Don’t try to at home, kids. It’s a recipe for injuring yourself.

Created (or made up) from whole cloth – A complete fabrication, a lie with no basis in the truth. Alternatively – something made completely new, with no history, and not based on anything else. I’m sure this must originally have come from the tailoring trade’s penchant for making “knock offs” of original designs. I’m not sure why “whole cloth” and my research didn’t turn up any good answers, but I heard it used this way in a modern fantasy book set in an alternative colonial America and it made total sense.

Curiosity killed the cat – Being inquisitive can lead you into an unpleasant situation. I always add “it died by drowning”.

Cut the mustard – To succeed; to come up to expectations; adequate enough to compete or participate. It doesn’t make much sense, although research shows it may have derived from “cut the muster” which is a military term for being selected for service. That makes way more sense.

Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched – Don’t make plans for something that might not happen. Mom told a story about a crop of chicks that didn’t hatch because the rooster got trapped outside the hen house on a critical night. Apparently this screwed up Mom buying shoes.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Do not put all your resources in one possibility. If you’ve never had your grocery bag blow its bottom, this idiom might not make much sense to you. An overloaded egg basket is a disaster waiting to happen.

Don’t get so lathered – meaning – calm down. But I didn’t know where it came from for a long time until I read a book about a horse sweating after a long run and it said the horse was “lathered”. Apparently, a horse that is “lathered” is very stressed and could even die if pushed too far. Grandpa was a horse wrangler, so this idiom likely had deep meaning to Mom.

Down to the brass tacks – get serious or truthful about a subject. My mom grew up in horse country where horse tack (bridles, saddles, etc) have silver-coated tacks that were often brass underneath. If you cleaned too deeply, you could rub off the silver and see the brass.

Heard it on the grapevine – ‘to hear rumors’ about something or someone. Again, no grapes in North Dakota. Not sure what it meant to Mom, but she used it a lot.

Hit the nail on the head – Do or say something exactly right. If you’ve never done carpentry this may not make sense, but when you hit the nail on the head instead of a bit off to one side or another, the nail drives in few hits and stays straight.

Image result for image of idiomsJump on the bandwagon – Join a popular trend or activity. It references a circus wagon that carried the band as it paraded through the town to advertise the circus. People (or politicians) who wanted attention would “jump on the bandwagon” because that’s where all the attention was lavished.

Kill two birds with one stone – This idiom means, to accomplish two different things at the same time. I have seen bow hunters get two ptarmigans with one thumper, which is a bean bag arrow.

Last straw – The final problem in a series of problems. Literally, when you’re loading a horse, you can add just one last ounce of weight and the horse will collapse. I can’t imagine Grandpa actually allowing that to happen, but Mom said she’d seen something like this occur.

Method to my madness – An assertion that, despite one’s approach seeming random, there actually is structure to it. Mom used this term a lot. We weren’t always certain of her methods.

Nine days’ wonder – something (such as a news story) that people talk about a lot but only for a short time – this is actually a really really old idiom going back into English literature.

Once in a blue moon – Happens very rarely.This drove me crazy for years. I’d never seen a blue moon. There’s no such thing. Then I discovered that a “blue moon” is when there are two full months in a month, which happens approximately once in a year.



Take with a grain of salt – This means not to take what someone says too seriously. This goes way, way back to Pliny in ancient times. Salt was used as an antidote for poison, so it might mean that you were a little skeptical of what someone said and that provides some immunity to their blarney.

To hear something straight from the horse’s mouth – To hear something from the authoritative source. This one is really old too. Back in the Bible, Balaam, a prophet of God, wanted to take money from the king of another nation. God had told him not to, but he continued in his misguided pathway until his donkey spoke to him. Americans didn’t really care for donkeys, so it got changed to “straight from the [horse’s] mouth”.

Whatever Happened to Civility?   8 comments

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or were born fairly recently, you probably have noticed the decline of American discourse.

Join the Open Book Blog Hop while we discuss swearing in our society today.

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First, let me clear the air. I am quite capable of turning the air blue with some filthy language. I grew up on Alaska, where the social norm is that there are no social norms, so men and women both swore openly when I was a kid and usually asked us kids to not do it in front of Grandma when she came for a visit. I’m sure there were parents who washed their kids’ mouths out with soup in an effort to keep them from imitating their parents, but mine were not among them.

There are times when a swear word is perfectly appropriate. When you’re falling off a cliff to your apparent death — “golly gee” is probably NOT appropriate. We can all think of the words we would use as we lost hold of the cliff edge and euphemisms wouldn’t cut it. That said, I think we overuse swear words A LOT.

F***ing is not an “adjective.” It certainly isn’t the only adjective available in the English language. Yes, it has a certain impact, but that impact diminishes with overuse. Some derivative of that word is used in pretty much every movie and novel written in the last 20 years, usually in every scene, so that, for me, it has pretty much lost its impact.

I first noticed this law of diminishing returns when I read Catcher in the Rye. I read this great novel before accepting Christ as Savior, so it had nothing to do with morality. Remember what I said about how I grew up. I could swear like a diner waitress by the time I was in high school. The use of “goddamn” at least three times every page made me long for Mark Twain’s editor. About halfway through the book, I told my teacher that I thought JD Salinger had a limited vocabulary. I understood why he did it, as a slap in the face of societal constraints on language in his era, but it was just overdone. Surely, he had other words at his disposal. Why not use them? Because he was unfamiliar with those other words and didn’t own a thesaurus? I doubt that. Later, in college, when I reread the book, I had a different reaction and that was the reaction Salinger was going for. Overdone, yes, but also disrespectful. By that time I had become a Christian and I cared if God’s name was taken in vain. Salinger was seeking to offend people who cared about civility and he managed that in the first 10 pages of the book … he then went on to belabor the point into overuse.

I apologize if any readers who are offended by the graphic to the right that illustrates the modern example of this pattern. Remember what I said about appropriate use of swear words? The best way to illustrate their overuse is to, for a sentence, over use them.

I’m a free-speecher. I do not advocate any laws that would prevent people from speaking as they will.

BUT … I think it’s downright rude how people today talk out in public, in front of children, and little old ladies. Looking back, the adults around us swore, but they also knew when to curb their speech … not in front of their own kids, but in front of the neighors’ kids … or the neighbors themselves if they weren’t potty-mouths. In one of the many houses we lived in during my childhood, there was a pastor living next door and I had a conversation with my mother about my language. No soap involved, but she was of the opinion that I shouldn’t embarrass the neighbors and thereby, embarrass her and Dad. My generation was afraid of our parents’ wrath, so I practiced not swearing in our backyard. It was good practice for when Grandma came for a visit.

There are times and places where swearing is acceptable, but maybe we need to just voluntarily hit PAUSE and think about what is coming out of our mouths right at that moment, whether the people around us really need to hear it and whether the situation really warrants it. Are we just using language with casual disregard or are we trying to offend? And if it’s the later, why? We who would never use the n-word to a black person will casually let slip highly offensive language to random strangers. We recognize the n-word as a slur and an affront that might get our ass righteously kicked, but it’s somehow considered okay to subject our Christian neighbor to the f-word every other sentence. Whatever happened to civility? I’m not talking about making speech codes. I’m talking about controlling ourselves so that we are not offending the people around us.

And … just to point out … I am not myself offended by such language, but I notice its effects on others and regret that I was the cause of that in the past. I didn’t know and I’m sorry. I don’t do it anymore … unless I’m falling off a cliff.

In my writing, I don’t use a lot of swear words. I do use them because when the world ends, it’s appropriate to swear at least a little bit. But I really think we need to scale back our use of these words if only because we diminish their impact when we overuse them. It’s like the exclamation point. Great little punctuation mark, unless someone uses it five times on every page and then it becomes annoying and, ultimately, meaningless.


Rebecca Lovell is a romance writer with a series of short stories and a book for publication in development. Find her here.

Posted January 18, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Stay Tuned for the Blog Hop   Leave a comment

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What the *$%(^&^)?

Yup! The Open Book Blog Hop is talking about swearing.

What do you think? Do we do it too much? Too little? Is it a good thing or a bad one? Do you just wish you could wash Colin Farrell’s mouth out with some Ajax?

Join us for the discussion.

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Why is 1066 SIgnificant?   4 comments

No, I really want to know. Someone recently said to me “It’s been all downhill since 1066.”

I asked him why, so I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear what you think.

What was significant in 1066?

Participation in this conversation could result in free books.

Posted December 2, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Writing

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Trash Talk   Leave a comment

There are some words that are used daily in the propaganda mills of the media. They’re used because they illicit a visceral emotional response from those who read or hear it. This response is not examined by the reason centers of the brain. It prompts people to action without thinking.

“Pristine” is one of them. It’s an adjective meaning: 1) having its original purity, uncorrupted or unsullied; 2) of or pertaining to the earliest period or state; primitive. Alaska’s large tracks of uninhabited land are often referred to as “pristine”. It connotes clean, untouched environment that has never been polluted.

Of course, that’s not really true. The North Slope, for example, had hydrocarbon seeps before the petroleum companies ever explored there. The Natives of the North Slope knew about these seeps and they used the fuel found there in lamps and warming fires. And while they were at it, they left their trash in their seasonal camps so that archeologists could dig it up hundreds of years later and study the social conditions in that “pristine” environment. And then there were all the animals making their own messes. Pristine — not exactly — but if the word is applied, then we don’t have to discuss the reality.

There are many other propaganda words available to consider.














You get my point, I hope.

We have emotional reactions to these words that set aside any reasonable reflection on the subjects being discussed. That’s the point of the propagandist’s use of these words – why they used them initially and kept using them until they took on the weight of religious meaning.

We need to examine how we use language and recognize that any time a mere word shuts down discussion of the topic behind it, that word has become a danger to thinking and should be relegated to the trash heap so that we can actually talk about the reality behind the emotion.

Posted January 10, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Common sense

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