The War of Words

(Or, Word War I)

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This is me at my new place. Note the happy face, the rosy cheeks, and the sleepy eyes. This picture was taken after loading a 15′ U-Haul and then unloading (with family help). Still, note the excitement. This has nothing to do with the article except to put an updated face to the writer.

 

Now. Serious business.

“PORK THE OTHER WHITE MEAT” (Seen on Illinois’ Pork Producer’s Association marquee, 2009)

“PORK THE ONE YOU LOVE” (Seen on same marquee, 2016)

In 2016, word choice and overall “word education” seems to quickly be moving toward the worlds of business and higher education. As one big “conspiracy,” a seemingly unimportant aspect of daily life–life “simplified” by text abbreviations, emojis, and “memes”–the art of word choice has been discarded to favor sloppy, “you know what I mean,” communication. I posit there’s an incredibly important reason to focus on writing, even to the point of studying individual words, because we’re being manipulated, controlled, and dare I say, dumbed down.

In my opinion, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

I’ll start with the Pork quotes. Seven years ago I attended college in this area, and I passed that marquee quite often. It had the unassuming “The other white meat” slogan to try and raise awareness that it was as tasty or moreso than Chicken. It also tried to brand pork as not being a red meat, appealing to the health conscious consumers. This idea was aimed toward selling more pork, and making more money, and embracing capitalism as it should be. This slogan, while disingenuous and possibly a flat-out lie, improved the image of pork. The focus was on sales.

Fast forward to today’s slogan, and everything is quite different. It contains an obvious double meaning, and a not-so-obvious triple meaning, with the first a comment on how much (the royal) You love pork over other meat (which, I assume, means the previous campaign went smashingly well), and the second meaning being how you should share pork with those you love. The third meaning, which I’m sure nobody got, was a crass, tactless sexualization of “pork” as a way to humorously help the passerby remember their product. This focus is on being memorable.

If you thought about it for five seconds, you’d probably be disgusted: stick a bratwurst in the one you love, because sex.

Don’t get me wrong: it worked. In fact, I came right home to write about it, it worked so well. I remember the product, the marquee, the location–everything. And I’m thoroughly disgusted. I believe (and I have ZERO research to back this up) that such a slogan wouldn’t have worked seven years ago. First, because the product was apparently struggling and second, because such a blatant sexual comment would turn people off to pork. Now? It seems, not so much.

Another aspect of advertisement is the power of labeling a product: On a recent outing to Buffalo Wild Wings, my father commented that we cost him a fortune when we go out to to eat there, and he’d prefer if we bought less. Given I had always purchased a “medium” wing basket, in comparison to a “large,” I thought I had been exercising moderation. I’m eating the average size! The middle of the road! What normal people eat! Then I looked at the price–18 bucks–and recognized something else: I need to be a lot more money-focused. I also need to try a small size to see how much comes with it.

From a psychological standpoint, I felt a little weird ordering a small. Small is under-filling. Small is snack-sized. Small is “I don’t like this food, but I’m here for a friend.” Small is “I’m on a diet and I don’t see a salad I like.” But it was fine. Again, I’ll say (more for myself than anyone reading) SMALL IS FINE! It filled me up enough. No, I wasn’t stuffed. I didn’t gorge and waddle out. It contained the same flavors, only a little less than medium.

And I started off all of this, a long while ago, by ordering medium because that seemed normal. It isn’t. Small is the new normal. Hell, snack sized is the new normal. We like our patterns. We enjoy our biases.

What’s more is I can extend this perspective to fast food chains. A medium Mountain Dew at Taco Bell today is WHOA larger than a medium from seven years ago. A Big Mac is WHOA smaller today than it was ten years ago, too. Big Mac. Small burger. Medium drink. Huge drink. Labels. Important.

And this whole communication style becomes a whole lot more obvious when you see political commentary. One guy saying outright lies, the other saying outright lies, with the media simply parroting the quotes until someone comes along and says “that is a lie!” And then spin doctors rush in to explain what the person meant. I feel (and I could be wrong) that the average person is alright with media filtering the comments into neat little polarized boxes, where someone says a derogatory comment on a group of people and quickly gets to hide behind what the talking heads say he actually meant.

The opposite happens, too. Someone does something humorous or funny, someone else finds it offensive, and suddenly a stiff-fingered wave between friends becomes a blatantly racist and derogatory salute. I mean, did you see who she waved at? Doesn’t she know he’s German?! (German used in place of other groups due to the writer being German.)

No, the previous example isn’t about “words,” but the larger concept of being “spoon fed” information soas to not have to work, or think, overmuch.

So whose responsibility is this? The media’s? No. They’re doing what they do to get paid. Politician’s? No. They’re doing what they do to get more power. The Corporate-Forward, Synergistic Thinkers of Tomorrow’s Market-Focused Consumer Hub’s? No. They’re branding and selling, as any free-market capitalist venture should do. Honesty and Integrity? Not so much. But then again, who cares about honesty and integrity? Corporate America doesn’t. Yet I digress.

Where does this responsibility lie? In our hands. I find a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of people have no interest in word choice and communication. They want to purvey a comment quickly and without much effort. They focus on other forms of education: partially because they weren’t taught the importance, and partially because they don’t see a value. They want a medium drink because that’s what they’ve always bought, and get a refill because it’s free, and why do I weigh thirty pounds more than I want and have diabetes?

My family and I have constant discourse on proper word use. In fact, even though he’s an engineer, my brother is far more adept at correcting people when they say something they don’t exactly mean than I. (Exhibit A: during the aforementioned move, my father said to my brother, “Would you unloosen that strap so we can get this desk off the dolly?” His response was to quickly, and efficiently, tighten the strap. Much to my father’s frustration. “You knew what I meant,” he said. It’s possibly petty. The context was clearly there to loosen the strap. Yet, my brother made the example. Why are we responsible for translating what another person says?)

A friend recently texted me that he’d turn me on to the authorities. Har har. “You know what I mean.” Then write it correctly. Am I being a dick about this? Possibly. You don’t like people quoting you a price for a job only to come back with a number in the same ballpark as the first yet not the same. And you sure as heck won’t take “You knew what I meant” for an answer. Yes, money is at stake in the second example. Yes, money CAN be at stake when it comes to proper communication. I sure as heck lost lots of time at my previous job because Joe Customer couldn’t explain how he wanted the install to go.

Co-workers lovingly (or not) called me English Major, or English Guy, because I’d sporadically correct their word use when it became confusing (and believe me, I didn’t correct nearly as often as I could have). And the moniker is a dismissive one. As if I’m somehow wasting my time on trying to understand them and not just ignoring the things that don’t make sense. What’s more wasteful? Efficient communication or long, broken up, simple sentences?

I also want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with short, simple sentences. Nothing wrong with misspelled memes or getting frustrated at someone when they hurt your pride efficiency by correcting you. Nothing wrong with porking the one you love.

But. There’s also nothing wrong with wearing jeans to a job interview, cursing in a church, chewing gum while singing, texting in class, doing eye makeup while driving, making fun of your best friend behind his back, making sexist jokes when Trump is around, saying the earth is flat, refusing to believe in climate change…

Wait. There is. It makes you look dumb, at the very least. Ignorant. Silly. Uneducated. I don’t understand how this can be a source of pride. And since it very obviously is, I don’t understand why we aren’t trying to improve on this.

Say, write what you mean. This war of words is only just beginning, and I certainly don’t want to wake up one morning being expected to say “double plus good.” (Orwellian reference to 1984)

Chris.

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