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‘The Word Police’

March 10, 2011

I have acquired a new nickname. The other night at dinner my family bestowed upon me the new moniker of “The Word Police.” As in “What are you anyway—the word police?” (I picture tickets, sirens and flashing lights.) All for pointing out the juvenile overuse of the word “gross.” For despairing of children’s voices in an over-zealous shout of the phrase “boo-yah.”

But I object. I am not “The Word Police.” I am a mother advocating manners, articulate speech and “The Indoor Voice.” Let me state here that I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to words—all words—known and ever-evolving, four-lettered or otherwise. Democracy for all, I say.

Of course we all have our favorites—words we are more partial to than others. Here is a free-wheeling list of a few of mine: calliope, gravy, river, windrow, willow, weevil, abalone, chitchat, limelight and purulent. Consider how the word “mink” starts on your lips then lopes to the back of your throat or the loveliness of how the word “balloon” fills with air as you say it. But I digress.

All words have a place, I say. The trick is to find the appropriate place. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This quote is appropriate considering the controversy surrounding the publication last month of a new edition of Twain’s 1885 novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Edited for school kids, the new version replaces upwards of 200 uses of the word “nigger” with “slave” as well as “Injin Joe” with “Indian Joe” and “Half-breed” with Half-blood.”

I can’t see the progress in censoring language that accurately portrays America’s past, however unsavory that past may be. But perhaps the real progress is in the fact that so many people have objected to tampering with the classic novel at all. General consensus seems to be that the book is more appropriate in a college syllabus with more mature students.

I’ve read that in times of war, such as the present, the native language diminishes—words vanish—and are dropped from the dictionary at a greater rate than in peace time. Perhaps this is reflective of a less tolerant, less expansive atmosphere that allows the simplification necessary to make someone your enemy. It is the same atmosphere that promotes illegal wiretapping of citizens and ugly bumper stickers that proclaim “Uncle Sam wants you to speak English.”