Calling a spade a lovely garden utensil

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Aug 14, 2006 12:00 AM

People are always writing books about the fall of great civilizations. The historians point to various things as indicators that a bad end was inevitable. Everything from over-extension of the military to corrupt politicians to all-male bathhouses have been credited with bringing on the collapse of various powerhouses. In the case of America, I think our decline began with the rise of the euphemism.

Now, as a rule, well-meaning people employ euphemisms in order to be kind. Unfortunately, we do our reasoning with words and, so, when what we wish to communicate isn’t clear-thinking but merely our own compassion and empathy, we wind up sounding like a bunch of fuzzy-headed nincompoops.

I’m not sure when we turned into a nation of intellectual creampuffs, but it may have begun when Negroes became blacks and then became, in certain absurd circles, African Americans, although neither they nor their parents nor even their great-great- grandparents had ever set foot on the dark continent.

Not to be left out, Orientals were transformed into Asians, although no Chinese or Japanese person I’ve ever met thought “Oriental” had a negative connotation. After all, when it came to rugs, cuisine, philosophy, and culture, it was all positive. But the speech police never give a single thought to logic because they never pause to think, they merely feel.

The only thing that the term “gay” has to recommend it is that it’s so much shorter than” homosexual.” On the other hand, I dislike the fact that we have lost the original meaning of the word. Gay is a word that’s unique in our language, perfectly capturing a state of light-heartedness, and I resent that it has been commandeered by a small segment of the population.

I’m reminded that back in the 1950s, John Steinbeck wrote an article in which he lamented that the Communists had ruined the word “comrade” for the rest of mankind by usurping it as their own.

It was inevitable that perfectly legitimate but unglamorous occupations would become passé in the new world order. No longer was it okay for people to be janitors or garbage collectors. Over night, they became some sort of engineers, although the job description and the pay scale remained exactly the same.

As if it weren’t bad enough that Jerry Lewis made them a laughingstock in 40 years worth of rotten movies, mentally retarded people suddenly had to put up with being called special and even exceptional. Perhaps with their lack of language skills, they are at least spared knowing how they’ve come to be patronized. Do their parents actually refer to their offspring as exceptional? If so, what word do they use to describe their kids who have 160 IQs?

And at what point did all the bums vanish, as in a science fiction movie, only to be replaced with the homeless? It does seem odd that these guys who are always trying to cadge my change at the supermarket or trying to wash my perfectly clean windshield aren’t bums, considering that they certainly look, act and smell, like bums.

If it appears that I dislike the members of any or all of these groups, that’s not the case. What I loathe is the cheapening of our language. It’s bad enough that we lack the gumption to make English our official language, but we certainly don’t need to turn it into sheer malarkey, the language of social workers, milquetoasts, and New York Times columnists.

For the record, by the way, I am not a senior citizen or height-challenged or follicle-deprived. What I am is old, short and bald.