Why politically correct language just plain sucks

This immense pressure for all of us to sound like Rhodes scholars delivering a speech to the UN Commission on Human Rights

03 February 2019 - 00:08
Image: Aardwolf

"A few afternoons ago, I witnessed a collision between an automobile and mass transportation vehicle. The occupants of the mass transportation vehicle were youths from a learning institution that caters for the hearing impaired, differently abled, unsighted and partially sighted from a nearby informal settlement.

"When law-enforcement officers arrived on the scene they engaged with a few domestic co-ordinators whose proximity to the incident made them ideal witnesses to the entire affair."

If you reincarnated a brilliant wordsmith like Can Themba and asked him what that gibberish means, he'd fail that comprehension test. Yet how many times are you confronted with this kind of writing.

Language is in a constant state of flux. In a moment of stupidity and hubris, I recently promised an English professor friend that I'd tackle some Samuel Taylor Coleridge poetry from the late 18th century. I gave up after 15 minutes, defeated by the language.

My craft dictates that I read large volumes of text, from academic papers, scientific journals, novels, biographies, Kanye West lyrics, 3,000-word think pieces in The Guardian, Fikile Mbalula tweets and rambling 600-word Facebook posts by my childhood friend, Nkanyezi Ngobese.

I find myself drowning under the volume of sanitised, politically correct, "woke" language I'm bombarded with. I feel the pressure to second guess myself on every word I write. Like "maid", or "domestic worker" or "domestic employee".

Hardly anyone talks to anyone anymore; we engage with each other. We don't comment anymore; we make interventions

In our public conversations - oh, I'm sorry, I meant public discourse or public engagements - there is this immense pressure for all of us to sound like Rhodes scholars delivering a speech to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Hardly anyone talks to anyone anymore; we engage with each other. We don't comment anymore; we make interventions. We don't have stories anymore; only narratives. I lack the "woke" language to adequately express how that word "narrative" grates my nipples, grinds my nuts and crawls up my rectum. The only other word that rivals "narrative" in annoying me must be the grossly overused "nuance". These words catapult me into a rage worse than that experienced by bulls in the Pamplona Running of the Bulls.

For the longest time I couldn't really pinpoint the source of my frustration with the use of academic language in everyday speech. At first I thought it's because of the haughty tones that learned "experts", analysts and PhD types from the Centre For the Advancement of Word Porn and Public Masturbation use when they deliberately sidestep words that "ordinary" folks would understand.

Aha, I used to say to myself, you're jealous because you're a simpleton whose natural inclination is to say "underlying tone" instead of "nuance" in normal conversation.

The word "indigent" instead of the more direct "grossly impoverished" sanitises the condition. The word acts as a shock absorber for the full impact of its meaning, which is really "kak poor". This way we can talk about the needy, the penniless, the destitute and those without a pot to piss in without saying the words. And then we hide behind lofty, intelligent-sounding concepts such as "poverty porn" and feel great about our sophistication.

This column was inspired by a Twitter DM I got from a friend asking me why I had used the word "triggered" with a qualification in a recent column. Apparently, by doing so, I had made an attempt at delegitimising an important word in the modern lexicon.

After I told her to down a large glass of Shiraz and exhale, I told her that I actually like the word "triggering". It's an elegant, albeit lazy word to express the phenomenon of a current event triggering memories, feelings and state of mind from a previous situation.

For instance, the smell of waffles is triggering to me due to a traumatic movie date from 1993 which culminated in me embarking on a five-hour walk home. As I explained to my friend, perhaps I'm just experiencing nostalgia about a time when people were honest enough to say that they bought a used car instead of "a demo", "a pre-owned vehicle" or one that I heard for the first time in 2018, "a previously loved automobile".

I totally appreciate that the everyday language we use is very often crude, crass, offensive and is the carrier of historical and current prejudices. I understand why our everyday lexicon is in dire need of tinkering with because language is more than just a communication tool but also the carrier of our philosophies as a people.

But I also think that we need to be sober as we manoeuvre through this language maze. (Or is that personoeuvre now?). If we're not careful we might end up unable to refer to Mmusi as the toothless leader of the opposition but rather as the "dentally deficient".