By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on January 10, 2019.
There are timely lessons to be found
in lexicon, semantics
Albertans will participate in a provincial election in spring and in a federal election in fall 2019. During these times, seemingly we will become more important to our politicians as we are bombarded incessantly with messaging competing for our votes, filtered through the prism of journalists, pollsters, and voices and talking heads on radio, on TV and on YouTube channels and such, some of which sources are more proven and reliable than others and try more for truth.
Beware of hucksters, wherever they be; they abound. A word to the wise is: exercise discernment and clear thinking so as to show we, the citizenry, are not sleep-walking; will not simply be taken for granted; and are unwilling literally to hand away our vote to anyone or any party who assume they’ve got us. We will show them: a pox on algorithms of voters’ life patterns suggesting our mindlessness and our predictability, we who know in our hearts our individual uniqueness and understand our power. Persuasion’s power will be shown to be weak compared with that of our critical-thinking skills and of our collective will. The world community admires us still and is puzzled when occasionally it witnesses (even a small minority of) Canadians looking outward for examples of moral leadership, even as the world looks to Canada for guidance on how to dissipate the gloom of dark pessimism overtaking elsewhere, amid the search for scapegoats gaining momentum even here, too. As we, the informed citizenry, be and become more and better, eventually our leaders will follow us there.
We all know from experience, as philosopher Austin suggests, too (How to do things with words, 1955), that the so-called folk wisdom, “sticks and stones only can break our bones but words can never hurt us,” is inaccurate. Not only have words the power to hurt us but also the intent behind words and even the tone of words. Let’s put that bit of folk misdirection to rest.
In the context of this election year of election years, for brevity’s sake let us look at a single example from lexicon and its related science of semantics dealing with the meanings of words.
Our apologies to the weasel, that “small, long-bodied, carnivorous mammal of the family Mustelidae” (Canadian Encyclopedia). We won’t make these unsuspecting animals scapegoats; they are simply wild ones inhabiting the environment surrounding us.
However, another meaning of weasel has evolved, that of “a person who is regarded as treacherous or sneaky” (vocabulary.com). Shakespeare is credited for being the first in the English language to have used the word weasel pejoratively: “The weasel Scot comes sneaking” (Henry V, 1598) and “I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (As You Like It, 1600). Much later, Theodore Roosevelt is given this credit on our continent, for referring to the words of a political adversary, with: “That there man can do a lot of funny things with this language of ours [like a weasel, sucking the life out of it] until it don’t mean anything at all.”
Among more innocuous meanings attributed to group of weasels, we find “boogle,” “confusion,” “gang” and “pack” (www.havahart.com/weasel-facts). “Boogle” is unusual, so our site consulted explains further that one has “yet to see the word boogles used in any context except nonsensical sentences.” Pack mentality typically features such message momentum (an expression I coin, developed further in an upcoming book, which is similar in meaning to propaganda). Once the message gets rolling, it seems that, like a snowball, it is very hard to stop. If the notions that the economy is off the rails or the debt burden is burgeoning out of control or employment levels are in the tank are repeated often enough, we are witnessing message momentum. No facts required (the above examples constitute, in large measure, misinformation, though clearly there are those hurting), if only the electorate remains unwary.
Other weasel practices include using words that propel this message momentum (Duane Bratt commentary, CBC radio, Jan. 2), as with Notley is “scrambling”; hers is an “Opposition strategy” as compared with Jason Kenney’s aspiring “Premier’s strategy” positioning himself as the anti-Trudeau valiantly fighting on Alberta’s behalf; Notley is allegedly “misreading” Albertans’ collective sentiment as she tries “desperately” to have the election focus on “values versus the economy,” even as Alberta’s NDP government took a similarly intelligent decision for Alberta after 2015 as did the Harper government for Canada during the downturn of 2008, deficit financing for the common good. Beware of weasel commentary.
“Values versus the economy” is a weasel dichotomy others are feeding us; thinking, caring Albertans know that both are important (every day of our lives). Environment versus the economy is another. Hysteria of the-sky-is-falling kind versus reasoned debate is yet another.
And why is political commentary seemingly always offered by political strategists and not also by political ethicists and moral philosophers, too? Just a regular Joe, average linguist asking.
Peter Heffernan earned a PhD in Applied Linguistics (UniversitŽ Laval, 1995), with a focus on lexicon and meaning in culture and language. A professor emeritus, he retired in 2014 after 32 years with the Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge.