Some years ago, Dr. Clyde Wilson complained that the American political class loves to crusade against big abstractions. Rather than do anything useful about the particulars of criminals and crimes, for example, they announce a War on Crime. This works for them because such a “war” has no obvious end. Even if we never know when it is over, or whether it has accomplished anything worthwhile, the bureaucracies and budgets arising from the project will never be abolished or even curtailed. Perfect.
Even better, once the legislative maggot begins to bite (to use John Randolph’s phrase), an endless creation of new “law” ensues, even though we already had more than enough of that before each new crusade got under way. Many of the people who whine about a litigious society in their spare time, are themselves gainfully employed in creating the material causes of ever greater litigation. But no matter.
On this cunning plan, combined with what one late 19th-century British writer called Over-Legislation, we have had a War on Poverty, a War on Crime, a War on Terror, and have currently a War on Clarity and a War on Civility. Add in a constantly growing body of administrative “law,” and we are surely done for. It seems time enough to ring the curtain down.
Language and its abuse are central to our plight. Richard Weaver warned us about this. As Orwell told us, the 20th century was rather unkind to our mother tongue, with politicians and ideologists leading the wreckers. Similarly, the late John Lukacs noted the bureaucratization and Germanization (as he put it) of American English. British English is little better, having lost all track of the subjunctive mood, of which a tiny bit survives on this side of the water.
In recent decades, we have seen many sturdy plain-English words (whether native or Norman) hijacked and ruined for political reasons. Rhetoric, as Weaver feared, has yielded to partisan sophistry. These days any ranting halfwit can be a Professor of This or That, if the selfsame is sufficiently adept at using the latest New Speak according to its internal rules and illogic.
The new wave of New Speak features barbaric neologisms made up of Latin and Greek materials randomly thrown together by pretentious academics who have likely never spent much time actually studying Latin or Greek. In the 1990s, David Theo Goldberg and Sande Cohen stood out from the crowd, but now the crowd has grown astronomically. Another early pioneer was the anthropologist Marvin Harris, whom a fellow Marxist condemned for “paranoid materialism” (and rightly so). Harris’s contributions were “emics” and “etics,” which he derived by ripping suffixes off Greek abstract nouns to be used as social-scientific jargon. Since phonetics studies the acoustic properties of speech sounds, while phonemics studies patterned relations between two or more sounds, it followed that “etics” remained on a superficial bourgeois level of anthropology, but “emics” was a superior dialectical and Marxist approach. (How much help Harris’s innovation was, I cannot say.)
The dreaded non-concept “meme” is another case of extractive jargon-formation. Here, the word’s father, Brother Dawkins, shortened the classical Greek word mímēma (“copy”) to get a near-rhyme with “gene,” his famous hobbyhorse. He thus invented a well-rested atheist’s substitute for “ideas, thoughts, notions, slogans,” and a host of similar words. (Roget’s gives at least forty of them.) Since we had all those words, we hardly needed “meme,” and our thinking was doubtless clearer before Brother Dawkins coined it for us. It does, however, please the class of people who insist on saying “brain” when they apparently wish to discuss “mind.” Whether the memes are as “selfish” as the genes are said to be, remains open, but at least no one has yet written a country song involving “tight-fittin’ memes.”
The juggernaut of jargon advances relentlessly. Consider “neonate” for child and “gestator” for parent. There are many other examples, including the whole vocabulary of Intersectionality, best studied with painkillers at hand. One key is that the New Newspeak materializes spirit and etherealizes matter, something Americans have been pretty good at ever since the Puritans stamped their Ramist boots on our faces.
An Aside on Latin
A few years ago, someone commenting on Rod Dreher’s American Conservative blog introduced the term feti in the course of an argument over the status of the unborn. I suppose he wrongly imagined this to be the plural of fetus. There is a Latin adjective fetus, feta, fetum, meaning pregnant, and thus feti is possible, but would mean either “of a pregnant male person or material object” (masculine/neuter genitive singular) or “pregnant male persons” (nominative plural). The correct plural is fetūs, since fetus is a fourth declension noun. In English, we might just get away with “fetuses.”
A nation that forgets the Latin fourth declension is indeed in decline, but it is much worse if we forget English as well.
War by Definition
Strife centering on control of speech is hardly new. In 1878, Bernard Janin Sage, a Southern partisan, showed how far the process had gone with Webster’s dictionary. Janin thought that Noah Webster, although a Federalist, had not been a real enemy of the several American states. It was different with Mr. Webster’s successors. Contrasting Webster’s Dictionary of 1844 with that of 1864, Sage caught Webster’s heirs fiddling the definitions of key political terms in aid of Mr. Lincoln’s military invasion of the South. The words artfully redefined, whether by omission or addition, included state, compact, constitution, delegate, delegation, union, federal, federalize, confederation, congress, and the Latin phrase, “e pluribus unum.” (Sage gave the old and new definitions in parallel columns.) Even without Straussian philosophical foundations and postmodern trickery, the 1864 edition put definitional stilts under the Yankees’ One-People theory of the Union, the ideological basis of Mr. Lincoln’s projects.
Word, Concept, Universal
Nominalists said that universals were mere “names” chosen arbitrarily and Locke piled new error on this foundation. Positivist linguists agreed that names and words were entirely man-made (with no relation, ever, between sound and sense -- or, one assumes, to any reality). Thus, there is an animal, but the poor fellow is variously dog, Hund, chien, perro, canis, etc. – all of which are “arbitrary.” But, alas, nominalists couldn't really get rid of the underlying concept or the actual animals. (On such points, certain medieval students of language, cited by Roman Jakobson, were smarter than the positivists.)
The universal “dog,” as the concept to which this word points, exists not separately from the dogs, but in them; but equally in all of them. It exists “in” our minds but also in the world-given, separate dogs, because our minds are such that we can grasp certain realities. And the concept points to a reality, in this case the real, individuated dogs. It may follow that DNA is a material-efficient substratum of the formal and final causes of the species “dog.” (This is a bit more complicated than Aristotle thought but basically compatible with his hierarchy of causes and accidents.)
These days, the heirs of Occam, having done all the damage they can do and having made all the progress we'd ever want them to make along the lines of scientific method, have rabid descendants who want to create new (and very arbitrary) pseudo-universals by robbing us of natural language and making the meaning of words depend on decrees by Hobbes’ Sovereign.
According to the post-Marxist anti-culturalists, then, everything is merely “language”; we are trapped in it, and it's all about power relations. Here the mind-body problem is resolved in favor of an unreal notion of mind.
Between the two dystopian utopias offered in the 19th century, we are living less in the one advanced by Marx and critiqued by Orwell, and more in the one advanced by Comte and critiqued by Huxley. Brave New World indeed. Yet the world seems real enough; we are in it, and it is in us and, further, we are equipped to have useful, direct knowledge of a good many things. Judged by results, the mind-body problem is just a mad philosopher's game.
Nouns of Mass Destruction
Sometimes the language favored by post-Marxist anti-culturalists seems so awkward, so clunky, so stupid even, that one has to suspect there is some serious calculation behind it. Aside from stereotyped Stalinists, who would deliberately talk like that? There is some sort of sophist’s Law of Maximally Unreal Abstraction at work here. On purpose.
Consider the now oft-encountered term “neo-confederacy.” Is it a thing, a place, a state of mind? Is it even a noun? After years of wondering what cause this oafish word served, it came to me that it is a mass noun. Now, mass nouns refer to existents that can’t be counted (or not very well), like sand, fish, air, salt, uranium, etc. Whatever one of them points to, “there’s a lot of it about” -- as the Brits used to say (probably meaning sex). A politically contrived mass noun can thus serve any ole cause its minders wish it to serve.
So, too, with “neo-confederacy,” a lot of which is said to be about: “A tidal wave of neo-confederacy swept across New Jersey last night. The Coast Guard and the Center for Disease Control are on the scene…” “Spokesmen for the Impoverished Law Center say this outbreak can only be compared to the post-World War One flu epidemic…” “Drones are circling overhead looking for neo-confederacy…”
As a mass noun, “neo-confederacy” is specifically meaningless but everywhere toxic. It is on a par with floods, famines, pellagra, pneumonia, boll weevils, and the like, ever menacing, ever lurking – and all the rest of it. As Maximally Unreal Abstraction goes, this is pretty clever -- and stupid -- at the same time. As a contribution to serious American dialogue it reaches rather early limits. It is like those invitations to a “national conversation” on race, by which a one-sided Maoist harangue is meant.
The most massively current mass-noun of mass destruction is of course “whiteness.” This abstraction is so stretched beyond limits that no thought need accompany it. The larger studies fad set in, in earnest, ca. 1970, with somewhat inconclusive results. First there were Black Studies and Women’s Studies, and then the dam broke and everybody and his dog had studies. Even the dogs had them.
I don’t mind too much. Sure, let’s study everything. Coherence may not result, but American education hasn’t been about much more than money and agitprop for a long while.
So now, at long last, we have White Studies, sort of, but those are actually Whiteness Studies – built on a noun of mass misdirection. Someone has recently noted that while all the other studies (or Others’ Studies) exist to champion and lionize those studied, only White Studies require constant ranting against their subject matter.
The practitioners will reply that demonizing the demons is no sin. They would say that.
Verbal Missile Throw-Weights
Back during the High Cold War, National Review sometimes featured the musings of Cold War Thomists who could reconcile nuclear “weapons” with an Americanized parody of Just War Theory. These writers, and the other NR militarists, would write lovingly about the comparative “throw weights” of U.S. and Soviet ICBM’s, while the theology melted away like a late snow in spring.
Verbal throw weights may be a new thing, like the rise over the last two or three years of the five-syllable nuclear dart. It used to be enough for progressives to denounce any unwelcome ideas and their spokesmen as “racist.” But with only two syllables, and pressed hard toward utter meaningless, the word was in danger of losing its heft. Just in time, two substitutes came to the fore, “white supremacist” and “white nationalist.” Easily used with the same sloppiness, inaccuracy, and minimal honesty as their forerunner, they have refreshed the non-debate. More syllables, more weight.
A wonderful national monologue awaits.
Consuming Nomads in a Perfected Police State
Now, I am not suggesting here that language as such is inherently oppressive or that communication is impossible. We may leave such claims to the gathering anti-culturalist hordes. We can use language honestly and we can use it dishonestly. Enough of the latter, however, and even well-meaning people will lose the ability to think clearly. We have two political parties that perfectly illustrate the point.
Without the recovery of language, our fate stands before us, or so it seems. (See heading above.)
I wish the news were a bit better than this.
 See http://ozconservative.blogspot.com/2020/02/why-does-sophie-lewis-want-to-abolish.html .
 Never foetus, pl. foetūs (The Shorter Oxford Dictionary is probably wrong: the digraph oe found there seems to be either an 18th-century pseudo-archaism, or a Late Latin spelling after oe and ē had coalesced in ē).
 Bernard Janin Sage, The Republic of Republics (1878, reprint: Dahlonega, GA: Crown Rights Books, 2001), 265-268 (Webster), 269-274 (successors).
 Andrew G. Van Melsen, Evolution and Philosophy (1965), Ch. 9, and George Stanciu, "DNA and Soul," theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/07/dna-and-soul-george-stanciu.html .
 See David Shannon, The Decline of American Communism (1959), Ch. 7 & 8.
 Brother Dave Gardner could have sorted this out with his patented bebop dialectic.
 If I remember the source, I will include it forthwith.
4/16/2020 12:15:15 pm
I have enjoyed this short piece about the weaponization of language. The yankee is an expert in this sort of thing, a lot like my old dog is at chasing chickens. Its just natural. But a term I despise with all my heart is "You Guys". My little prayer is that all that use it, would be struck with... well I better not say it but I think it.
4/19/2020 07:40:17 pm
Agreed, Mr Robbins. I have Yankee cousins who used to annoy me with 'you guys'. Another word they used annoyed me to no end, referring to soft drinks as 'pop.' Of course, genuine Southerners, as a rule, refer to soft drinks as Coke, as in 'let's stop at the Clara store and get a Coke.' However, Coke is used in a generic sense. When my family stops at the Clara Store in Wayne County, Mississippi, our favorite cold drink is.....RC.
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Joseph R. Stromberg is a prolific independent historian with libertarian, anti-war, and Southern sympathies. He writes from Georgia.