Precision of Language

“It’s just an extremely progressive agenda that does not sit well with me or my upstate constituency.”
-Thomas O’Mara of the NYS Senate on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, as quoted in “Cuomo Says His Course is Moderate” by Joseph Spector, Democrat and Chronicle (January 11, 2013)

progressive (adj.) -  Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods.
-The American Heritage College Dictionary
, 4th edition (2004)

We all say stupid things sometimes. I have been quoted way, way too many times in publications in ways that make me sound less intelligent than I would prefer to sound to be criticizing other people’s quotes, but when I read Senator O’Mara’s bit in the D&C yesterday, I actually laughed out loud, because one way to look at what he is saying there is that his district is full of people who don’t want the world to get better. He’s not saying that they are specifically against the world changing in the ways Governor Cuomo mentioned in his address. No, these people are against progress itself.

Incidentally, Senator O’Mara’s district includes Ithaca, home of Cornell University, which perhaps some of you have heard of. Also my friend eisha lives there, and last I knew she was completely in favor of the world sucking less.

When you get right down to it, O’Mara is actually complimenting Cuomo’s policies because the implication behind the word progressive is that whatever’s going on is leading to a positive outcome (you know, PROGRESS). Of course, that isn’t what O’Mara meant, and we all know it’s not what he meant. He meant something more like socially liberal, but he’s not the only person who’s come to use progressive this way. I think it’s like a game of telephone: one politician who didn’t mind sounding crazy started railing against progressives one day and then this language got copied and copied and copied until political types started spewing it as just another word without actual meaning in pointless conversations.

It’s okay to make mistakes with language. It’s okay to sometimes say things we don’t mean. All humans do. But it’s the disregard for even trying to think or make sense or say something meaningful and original that makes me tired. It reminds me to try not to do this myself, not to be so lazy with my diction. And also to have a point.

And while we’re on the subject of usage, about half the English-speaking world needs to look up the difference between ensure and insure, because the rampant misuse of those words is starting to irritate me.

6 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    The word “progressive” is seen by many conservatives as code for “liberal agenda” or “socialism.” It’s thought that “progressive” sounds better so the socialists among us co-opted its use for PR value. Probably not entirely wrong, but it tends to fall into the category of “pro-life” vs “pro-choice,” where there’s very little actual descriptive value to the terms unless you are steeped in the politics that made each side choose a name specifically meant to irk the opposition.

    Or the Senator could just be an idiot. You don’t have to have brains to get elected.

  2. adrienne
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Mostly, I’m just tired of people seeking to communicate in public forms who don’t actually wish to communicate anything. That’s really what this is.

  3. tonderdo
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I tell people (usually ones younger than myself) that language only works because we all agree that the words mean the same thing. Of course I have started a new dialect in my classroom where certain names are now adjectives like confusing, or irritating, or loud, or brilliant, or late. The best part is when the inspiration for the new word doesn’t catch on and the rest of the class starts using the new word. I view this as a life lesson on the importance of language and clear communication, of course it also makes the class laugh which is good for the everyone.

  4. adrienne
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Laughter is a good thing, and language is a good thing to play around with. You, of course, are actually trying to communicate.

  5. Olivia
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny: the ensure vs. insure usage question is handled differently depending on where I have looked. In one or two spots (M/W and one other I’ve forgotten) it said that it was okay to use them interchangeably. In another one (Garner’s Modern American Usage)it said “insure” for financial, “ensure” for all others.

    I have looked this up specifically before today. :)

  6. adrienne
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Probably you should just take the pages out of those dictionaries that say you can use the words interchangeably. ;) My usage guides (obviously, I have two here at home for emergencies) both indicate that it’s best to use them properly and not listen to anyone who says any nonsense about using one when you mean the other.

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