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Monday, May 26, 2003


Casualties soar in America's war on words

NEW YORK -- During war, news manipulation comes to the fore; so does language manipulation. In the latest war against Iraq, as in the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon sold a "Star Wars" depiction of U.S. technological prowess, blithely hiding the carnage it created. And many American news organizations happily bought it.

The happiest of the lot, some media watchers have pointed out, was the domestic part of CNN. As Russell Smith, the Toronto Globe and Mail columnist, wrote, it simply passed along the Pentagon's version of the war: "It describes the exploding of Iraqi soldiers in their bunkers as 'softening up'; it describes slaughtered Iraqi units as being 'degraded'; some announcers have even repeated the egregious Pentagon neologism 'attrited.' " (His column is reprinted in The New York Review of Books, May 29, 2003).

What does "attrite" (or "attrit") mean? In a February 1996 speech titled "Air Power and the American Way of War," Gen. Ronald Fogleman, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, used the word to characterize American military strategy since the 1800s as relying on "the creation of large masses of forces that would employ mass, concentration and firepower to attrit enemy forces." The updated American Heritage Dictionary says it means "to destroy or kill (troops, for example) by use of firepower." It is a back-formation of "attrition."

So, "attrite" is legitimate. But Smith is right to condemn the neologism. It derives from a Latin word meaning "rub," so "a war of attrition" may be appropriate where large forces clash in a grinding manner. But to apply the awkwardly abbreviated word to a hugely lopsided contest is to lie. Given the unprecedented firepower the U.S. military can bring to bear, as it did in Iraq, the apposite word is "annihilate."

Such thoughts came to mind when I read a remarkable book that describes a different kind of war and its consequences: "Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" by Diane Ravitch (Knopf, 2003). It details the history of battles fought over the English used in school textbooks and tests in the United States. The damages are summed up in a 31-page "glossary of banned words, usages, stereotypes and topics."

Battles over textbook language are mainly the offshoots of the civil-rights movement that gained momentum in the 1950s. As blacks won equality, they began to demand changes in language. The best-known example is the word "black": it had to replace "Negro," which was found to be demeaning. When I arrived in the U.S. toward the end of the 1960s, indeed, one famous slogan was "Black Is Beautiful." Since that time there has been further change: "black" rejected in favor of, first, "Afro-American," then "African American."

Women followed. The most famous demand they made was the rejection of "he" as a generic pronoun. I remember the historian Barbara Tuchman dismissing the "he or she" construction as barbaric in the 1980s. Were she alive today, would she do the same? I wonder. In the latest edition of his 1958 book, "The Affluent Society," John Kenneth Galbraith, the great stylist, apologizes for the use of he/man as generic: "That is the pattern throughout the book, too pervasive for ready recasting. As an early supporter of the women's movement, this I would now change if I were beginning anew." Now the American Heritage Dictionary appends a lengthy note to the entry "he" to assert why it has no historical justification as a generic pronoun.

Inevitably, other minorities followed suit: Jews, Muslims, Christians, American Indians, Japanese Americans, homosexuals, those who used to be described as "handicapped" . . . you name it. Inevitably, too, demands for changes went beyond individual words and syntax to cover content. Ravitch describes the case of a history series prepared by Gary B. Nash of the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles. A "man of the left," Nash is the foremost advocate of writing history from multicultural perspectives.

"No group liked the way it was portrayed," Ravitch writes. "Critics denounced the books as Eurocentric. A spokeswoman for the Hoopa, Yurok, and Karok tribes of Northern California complained that the books misinterpreted Indian religions. Muslim groups claimed that the books misinterpreted their religion and that only a Muslim could write an accurate account of Muslim history. Chinese Americans said the books marginalized Chinese people. Japanese Americans said that the books should have referred to World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans as 'concentration camps,' " and so on.

Take the word "spokeswoman." Ravitch uses it, perhaps in deference to the public hearings in which these opinions were aired, but she is feisty about that formation when it is applied to herself. "I want to decide for myself," she writes, "whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair)." A historian of education, she was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, and a member of the National Assessment Government Board through Bill Clinton's nomination.

The trouble, of course, is not with personal piques or amendments one may be persuaded to make over time. It is that the verbal contortions and evasions created by willful tampering and intervention are at once fussy and dull, and they often defy common sense.

For a seemingly considerate but ultimately exasperating example, take the word that tops Ravitch's long list: "able-bodied." It is banned as "offensive." If you wish to say something akin to that, you must say "person who is non-disabled." I must skip the reasoning behind this proscription and prescription, but since "able-bodied" is out, the merchant-marine term "able-bodied seaman" is out, too. In fact, it commits double sin; "seaman" is "sexist," because not all the crew aboard a ship are men. So, what used to be called "able-bodied seaman" must simply be called "crewmember," whether or not the person is certified for all duties.

For an amusing, conundrum-like example, there is "Adam and Eve." It is out. If you must refer to the couple who the Bible says were the first human beings on Earth, you must say "Eve and Adam." Why? Because you must "demonstrate that males do not take priority over females."

As Ravitch chronicles, the Christian right precedes the liberal left as a vigilant censor of school textbooks, agitating, for example, for the inclusion of creationism in the school curriculum. One can only wonder what they make of this particular reversal.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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