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Al Jazeera memo illustrates the importance of word choice

I’ve spent a lot of time and space over the last decade thinking and writing about political language, propaganda, censorship, and banned and taboo words. Every time the language wars begin heating up (illegal alien vs. undocumented worker), I find myself reverting to a set of first principles:

  1. What is the literal meaning of the questionable word or phrase?
  2. Does that word or phrase have any connotations, that is, associations that are positive or negative?
  3. How does the word correspond to what is actually happening on the ground?
  4. What group (sometimes called a “discourse community”) favors one locution over another, and why?
  5. Is the word or phrase “loaded”?  How far does it steer us from neutral?
  6. Does the word or phrase help me see, or does it prevent me from seeing?

This list of questions is inspired by an internal document leaked from Al Jazeera English and published by the conservative magazine National Review Online, NRO.com. Read more

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scott250

Stuart Scott was a master codeswitcher and we’re all better for it

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor, is gone, dead of cancer at the age of 49.  He leaves behind a splendid legacy in sports journalism, one that has shaped me as a fan, a writer, and an American.  Scott was a master of what is called “code switching,” that quality of language that that enables us to change the way we talk and write to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences.

Scott could be as rigorous as a scholar on commencement day, talking about life, sports, race, or his battle with cancer.  That power of Standard English was gained through his upbringing, his education at the University of North Carolina, and his professional aspirations to become a journalist and an anchor.  His predecessors at the networks, including ESPN, were primarily white and male and spoke in the Generalized American dialect we associate with Cronkite and Brokaw. Read more

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Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. Read more

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Style guide aims to make it easier to cover stories like Plan B

When news broke that the Obama administration had abandoned its effort to maintain age restrictions on a form of emergency contraception called Plan B, Monte Morin described the medication using dispassionate and clear language:

Plan B One-Step, like the related two-pill Plan B, uses the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy by blocking ovulation and impeding the mobility of sperm. Neither Plan B nor Plan B One-Step causes an abortion, nor does either harm a fetus.

Emotions run high around any news involving contraception or abortion, and news organizations do themselves and their audiences a real service when they deliver news in a fashion that allows readers to focus on the content of their stories rather than on how they’re presented.

That’s one reason why the Women’s Media Center’s newish “Media Guide to Covering Reproductive Issues” by Sarah Erdreich is an interesting read for anyone covering stories like Plan B. Read more

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Joe Biden’s use of ‘malarkey’ renews attention to the word’s origin

Visual Thesaurus | The Economist

Horsefeathers. Hogwash. Piffle. Flapdoodle. Baloney. Hooey. Hokum. Blarney. Twaddle. Poppycock. Applesauce. Tommyrot. Bushwa. You can drain your thesaurus for some time before exhausting the English language’s many words for “nonsense.”

And yet Vice President Biden chose the word “malarkey” to express his disagreement with U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan at Thursday night’s debate.

With the word, Biden deposited something of a flaming bag of claptrap on the doorsteps of America’s language bloggers. “The word malarkey, meaning ‘insincere or exaggerated talk,’ originally found favor in Irish-American usage, though its exact origin remains unknown,” Ben Zimmer writes. He quotes Michael Quinion, who says, “we’ll just have to settle for the unsatisfactory ‘origin unknown.’” Read more

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Joe Biden’s overuse of ‘literally’ shows why filler words matter

The Atlantic Wire | Vanity Fair | NPR
Vice President Biden’s aggressive use of “literally” in his speech to the Democratic National Convention Thursday night is the talk of the Internet Friday. How big is the topic? The Obama campaign literally bought the term on Twitter.

Jen Doll has written a cracking guide to what such “crutch words” say about their user. “As it were” is the drug of choice for “the most self-aware of crutch-word users.” “Apparently” is “oft used by the blogger, because it’s a way of getting out of a tricky situation.” “Honestly”: “The frequency with which you deploy this word is inversely related to the frequency with which you are actually honest.”

A possible addition: “Alas,” which is a sure sign you are a theater critic. Read more

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