Commentary

Extending respect to semantics

February 5, 2024 3:00 am

Merriam-Webster’s defines semantics first as “the study of meanings.” (Nebraska Examiner)

The right words at the right time in the right order for the right reason with the right meanings should be applauded … and expected. We demand zero tolerance in machining, precision in surgery and exactitude in engineering. Why not the same accuracy in language?

Given two recent examples from public figures showcasing the intentional misuse of language, we clearly have some serious “wordworking” to do … as users and consumers. Hijacking a word to bend or obliterate the truth not only mangles its meaning; it’s simply wrong.

Nor is this “just” semantics, as in the exasperated, “It’s all semantics!” — a phrase designed to render further discourse useless. Keep discoursing because this is just in: It is all semantics. What else do we have except the meanings — the correct ones ± of words? 

Linguists and lyricists may differ over potato or tomato, but even in the face of social media’s duplicitous headwinds and other propaganda machines, we can do better. “Better” calls out misusing words, intentional innuendos and flat-out lies for what they are.

To wit: Consider presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s bit of clumsy calumny, albeit political, in an attempt to rewrite American history. She recently insisted that the U.S. is “not a racist country,” a claim that ignores historical facts and — if I’m reading her biography right — her own family history. 

Examples that refute Haley’s declaration are legion and, apparently, too egregious for some schools to even consider letting their students learn. In some states (we see you Florida), books or curricula or both detailing slavery and its deeply ingrained toxins are either being removed, eviscerated or turned into pap that no serious student or American should tolerate. For further details see — among many others — redlining, Tuskegee (the airmen and the study), Jim Crow, poll taxes and eugenics.

We may hear language and sentiments similar to Haley’s when Nebraska Sen. Terrell McKinney’s proposal to establish a task force to consider reparations for slavery, Legislative Bill 1044, is discussed in the Unicameral’s Judiciary Committee, where it now resides.

His idea has precedent, if not execution. For 30-plus years, H.R. 40, which would greenlight a congressional study of reparations, has been introduced in the U.S. House. The measure has never passed, so McKinney’s idea may be a long shot, particularly given the Haleyesque view of history. 

Neither LB 1044 nor H.R. 40 calls for reparations, only for a study of them, which would require a serious stroll through American history, not as we choose it to be but as it actually was. Language that diminishes our past diminishes us, a country surely powerful enough to own its entire story.

Perhaps we’ll have more on LB 1044 when debate ensues, but now let’s talk about “hostages.”

As the Israel-Hamas war rages into its fourth month, the terrorists who struck on Oct. 7 still have Israeli hostages, some of them children. Information on the hostages’ conditions or even if they are alive has been sparse, leaving families reeling, desperate for news in their fight to keep hope from fading further.

Much as we did when Iran kept over 50 Americans hostage for 444 days after Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Israelis are laser-focused on the hostages’ return. This, while their country prosecutes a brutal, deadly campaign in Gaza.

Into this hostage narrative comes New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who called those convicted for their crimes during the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol “hostages.” She was echoing the GOP’s presumptive candidate for president, who also has referred to the prisoners as “hostages.”

Nor, as mentioned above, is this a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of telling the truth. Even with a swift and fierce pushback following the pair’s linguistic gutting of “hostage,” Iowa — well, technically 2% of voting age Iowans — delivered a caucus victory for the aforementioned frontrunner, as did New Hampshire in a GOP primary a couple weeks later. 

None of which mitigates the abhorrence of equating those trying to undo the will of the U.S. electorate — essentially trying to overthrow the government — with innocent civilians held against their will, pawns in a wider war. The misuse of the word is bad enough; embracing the idea is even more troublesome.I get the whole sticks and stones thing. But we’d be wise to remember what playwright Tom Stoppard said about words: “… (I)f you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more. … They deserve respect.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.

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