The curious power of words

Monday, June 15, 2009 | 11:48 a.m. CDT

Words, words, words: The power of words is a curious thing. On one level, they seem to be only haphazard combinations of markings, yet the most concrete, practical facts of the world are subject to them.

And yes, I realize it sounds like I’ve been smoking the wacky terbacky, but I assure you, this was my sincere and entirely sober thought as I recently weeded through news about upcoming legislation. It was also a thought that sent me on a trip right up the ladder of abstraction. So hold on to your hats — my course may seem mad, yet there is method in it.

I started considering words as I read about the Employee Free Choice Act, which could change the process of union formation in Missouri and elsewhere. Regardless of how much conversation there is about its pros and cons — and there are potential cons, especially for small-business owners — if those words show up on a ballot, 10 letters will give advocates an unparalleled advantage: It’s free choice after all. Vote against it and you might as well start going by Simon Legree.  

Those thoughts then led me to a favorite example of how words and politics intersect, a change popularized by the so-called doyen of American campaign pollsters, Frank Luntz. A GOP consultant and rhetoric specialist, he used language to change the American perception of the “estate tax” by advising politicians to call it a “death tax.” (He was not, notably, given definitive credit for coining the phrase.)

The change of one word changed the whole game. An “estate tax” sounds like a levy reserved for Donald Trump, King Midas and others who find it "just adorable" when people own only one house. But call the same toll a “death tax,” and the connotations, as well as people’s support, turn on their heads.

Suddenly voters see visions of tax-collecting reapers indiscriminately interrupting wakes: “You mean on top of the whole not-getting-to-live-anymore thing, I, Average Joe, am going to be charged a fee?” It’s no wonder polls found that 70-plus percent of the public thought the “death tax” affected all Americans — everyone dies, after all — when only the richest 2 percent actually have to pay. Republicans revamped the national image of a measure they wanted abolished with the switch of an adjective.

Those thoughts then led me to some much trippier considerations: As powerful as the connotations of words can be, they’re just the beginning. Words can also complete actions in and of themselves. Whoa dude, indeed.

When words do something instead of represent something, linguists call it “performative speech.” Theorist J. L. Austin discusses the phenomenon at length in “Performative Utterances.” Words become “speech acts,” he says, when they do not describe anything, when they are neither true nor false, but when they constitute all or part of the means used to complete an act itself.

Some common examples would be the pastor’s “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the act being marrying; the gambler’s “Five bucks says it rains tomorrow,” the act being betting; or “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice,” the act being summoning Michael Keaton.

Austin clarifies two conditions that must be in place for performative speech to work: The act signified by the speech must be socially accepted, and the speech must be used in the proper circumstances. Austin’s example of speech that so fails to work is saying, “I appoint you counsel” to a horse.  Another would be saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony performed by a stapler. Yet another might be going for a laugh with an Aristophanes joke any time after about 380 B.C.

It is, admittedly, old news that the pen is mighty, but what continues to amaze me is how arbitrary the means of manifesting that mightiness are. As Kurt Vonnegut stated in his novel “Timequake,” the English language is on some level really just “idiosyncratic arrangements in horizontal lines of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers and about eight punctuation marks.” Still, that randomness has little bearing on the potency of the words' effects.

And that thought brings me back to the general theme: that the power of words is a curious thing. It can, as a wise man once said, make one man weep and another man sing. It can even change a hawk into a handsaw (assuming the wind is southerly).  

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Mikey Popshot June 18, 2009 | 8:01 a.m.

EFCA/Card check and the death tax are two good national examples. You need look no further than the Boone County Farmers Market for another great one: "local food."

Never mind that the idea of getting all of your favorite food from within a limited radius is absurd (see many citrus trees in Columbia, Katy?) - the "local food" fad appeals to sellers and buyers alike:

1.) Gardeners can peddle average fare for above-average prices;

2.) Consumers too cheap to purchase high-end "natural" or organic products from a health food store have their guilt assuaged; and

3.) It allows (forgive me) garden-variety office drones to pretend to be like their high-minded foodies on the Coasts.

And let's not forget the local food movement's favorite self-desciption, "locavores" - the most critical function of which is to allow vajayjay-whipped men, pressured by their (stronger) female partner into unwanted dietary constraints, to call themselves a name which suggests the dinosaur-like power and independence they wish they had.

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