Note: The following is a little – well, more than a little – rough and it looks like it starts out in one place and ends at another though I swear I see a clear line of connection. It’s just that this has been the first time in ages that I’ve felt like writing and I wanted to get it down before I lost the thread and the urge completely. To be perhaps revised.
‘It was very impactful.’
That was how a woman on the radio described how she felt seeing a dying musician playing what was probably his last gig, wearing the costume she’d designed for that moment.
Really? I wanted to ask. For whom? Was the impact on the audience? Did the costume create a impact in the theatrical costuming world?
Was it good for you too? I wondered.
That was an interiew on CBC, which I listen to when I listen to radio. On another afternoon drive home I heard someone else say, ‘I felt a flood of emotions,’ when asked how he felt when experiencing what for any given human being would have been a life-changing event.
That’s something writers write about you, when they’re writing about your life-changing events, it shouldn’t be what you say about yourself in the moment. Sure, you felt all the feels, but did any one of them maybe stand out for you?
And in both cases, when pressed by the interviewer to expand on those ambiguous thoughts, the interviewees backed even further away from any language that might commit them to an actual feeling. Not, I hope, because they didn’t have them, but because they had no idea how to express them in that context.
The costume designer no doubt thought she sounded more like someone who would be interviewed on CBC radio if she said it was ‘impactful’ to watch a dying singer, with whom she’d been working for several years, perform his last concert wearing the clothes she’d chosen. In fact, to anyone who understands the nuances in language, it made her sound a bit heartless, as if she didn’t care one way or another, was only thinking about it because she’d been asked (and in fact this may very well have been the case and if it was, sorry, my bad).
But my point remains, she was merely my best and most recent example of people putting distance between themselves and any expression of emotion through language choice that I’m pretty sure they think puts a spin of erudition on the prosaic.
It’s the linguistic equivalent of the annoyingly ubiquitous vocal fry, that growl at the end of the sentence that lets you know the speaker feels only ennui about the topic in question. But it’s also part of an increasingly casual misuse of language. There have always been malapropisms — it’s why there’s a word for it — and god knows I’ve been guilty enough of them myself. But it used to be more rare to hear or read educated people make mistakes in word usage in broadcast and print media that used to be known for their intelligence, and now you can barely read anything — online or on paper — without catching at least one instance that is not a typo, but is actually someone using a word of which they obviously don’t know the meaning. Not just using impact as a verb (I know I’m losing that fight) but things like saying ‘allude to’ when you mean ‘said’ (because allude means to say without saying so if you said it you can’t have alluded to it); or, I don’t know, enervate when you mean liven up.
All this mad grasping at $10 words when a five-cent word will do comes at a time of unprecedented availability of educational opportunities, when there are more written words available to more people than ever before. Is language deteriorating because more people are able to make their versions of it go farther than their grandparents would have dreamed, or is it because the increased use comes at a time of decreased policing, when editors are losing their hold on the public presentation of the written word? I think that may turn out to be the chicken-and-egg question of our time. I’d be curious to know whether it’s happening in other languages to the same extent.
I know that every generation has its traditionalist, the person who figuratively runs through the streets shouting ‘the end is nigh!’ because of the changes time and usage wreak on language. I am both a part of and apart from this group — some changes don’t bother me in the slightest. But that normal erosion of language is not what I’m talking about — I’m worried about the increasing lack of consideration for the meaning of words. It perpetuates a cycle of ignorance, when even the people who should know better do not. How are people — how am I — supposed to maintain a sharp mind when it keeps running up against dull objects? How am I supposed to know what you mean when you say, when asked how you felt, that ‘it was impactful’? I don’t want to live in a world without meaning.