I taught college English for 24 years, and I still search newspapers and blogs for signs of the Beast, which, these days, attacks us mostly through language—errors of agreement, misplaced modifiers, and non sequiturs. That’s how you tear down a civilization.
While I was never a linguistics scholar, I have nonetheless followed its meandering course with interest—its relativistic philosophical trappings and its insistence that contemporary usage must be the only norm for evaluating the spoken and written word. Thus, all language is equal—a subversive proposition defended by the likes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
True linguists love neologisms—i.e., new words, most of which have cropped up to denote the appearance of new objects: google, blog, bytes, black hole. The learned journals are filled with discussions of such words, if only because they are proof of change.
However, linguists are less inclined to make lists of obsolete words—in many cases nouns that once denoted phenomena no longer in existence. Take, for example, a liripoop, which once adorned a graduate’s hood. The liripoop would hang down the back when the hood was off and would be wrapped around the graduate’s head when the hood was worn. So a liripoop was not the same thing as a tassel, and at some point, when it disappeared from commencement exercises, so did the word.
Sometimes an old word is replaced by a new word with the same denotation. A mungo was once the word for someone who rummaged through garbage cans. Today we have phrases like dumpster diver, which incorporates a reference to contemporary hardware.
But what about words no longer used, which referred to phenomena still in existence but have not been replaced by newer words? I recently ran across an example during the campaign for governor in the state of South Carolina. In order to clarify my point, however, I need to examine some of the passages that caught my attention.
During the 2010 campaign, a Columbia-based political junkie named Will Folks posted a blog in which he alleged that he’d had “an improper physical relationship” with gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley. The reason he gave for making this seemingly gratuitous admission sounded like the excuse of a schoolboy caught copying his neighbor’s algebra test: Wicked political operatives were out to get Folks, he claimed, because he’d fought for “academic opportunity for all of our state’s children, the promotion of individual liberty, and the creation of a more prosperous economic climate.”
The bad guys—those who want ignorant kids, a repressive government, and 50-percent unemployment—were out to destroy him: “Specifically, within the last forty-eight hours,” he maintained, “several pieces of information which purportedly document a prior physical relationship between myself [sic] and Rep. Haley have begun to be leaked slowly, piece by piece, to members of the mainstream media.”
And why would these trolls do this? Because, he said, they wanted to destroy “the one S.C. gubernatorial candidate who, in my opinion, would most consistently advance the ideals I believe in. For those of you unfamiliar with the editorial bent of this website, the candidate I am referring to is S.C. Rep. Nikki Haley.”
How could he confront this conspiracy, continue his quest as knight-blogger, and at the same time save the beautiful princess? “The Damocles sword” hung over his head, he maintained. His enemies held “the political equivalent of a switch-blade” in front of his face. Turns out, he couldn’t do it all.
“They will stop at nothing to humiliate me,” he said,
destroy my family and take a sizable chunk of the credibility this website has managed . . . I have become convinced that the gradual release of this information is deliberately designed to advance this story in the press while simultaneously forcing either evasive answers or denials on my part or on Nikki’s part.
Moving to stage center, he proclaimed to his audience, “I refuse to play that game.” Then—“The truth in this case is what it is. Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki.”
The entire state was stunned. He did this to his favorite candidate? Note the mitigating phrase “prior to my marriage.” But not “prior to” hers. Folks gave scant attention to her marriage—a husband and two children—in his eagerness to be Tell-It-Like-It-Is Will, the Ernest Hemingway of Palmetto State politics.
Indeed, he became overtly moralistic:
It is what it is, and aside from the Haley family—Michael, Nikki, Rena and Nalin—I feel no need to apologize or explain myself to anyone. People are human. We make mistakes. And as I have learned from experience, the key to life isn’t the mistakes we make, it’s how we choose to handle them.
His way of handling his mistake was to affirm the validity of the charges against Nikki Haley, to brand her for life in the eyes of many, and to emerge from his dark night of the soul, feeling as pure as Little Orphan Annie: “I can sleep at night knowing I handled this the best way I knew how (the way my wife and I decided together that it needed to be handled), which was to simply [sic] tell the truth.”
Boiled down to its essence, Folks’ argument went like this: Wicked people are leaking rumors about me and Nikki Haley, my favorite candidate for governor, so I’m going to foil their plot by shouting to the world, “Yes. It’s true. Nikki cheated on her husband with me.” It was like murdering your best friend because you hear a hit man is out to get him.
Either Will Folks was a moral idiot in making such an argument, or he was deliberately out to destroy Nikki Haley’s political career. After reading his smarmy, self-serving blog, I admit that the first explanation is awfully attractive. But rumor abounds that he was paid to do the job. Nikki Haley herself, in denying the charges, said, “Follow the money.”
To reinforce this interpretation, Larry Marchant, a paid employee on candidate Andre Bauer’s campaign staff, called a press conference to announce that he, too, had entered into an improper physical relationship with Mrs. Haley. Political insiders say Marchant was likewise paid to blacken the woman’s reputation so Bauer would get the Tea Party vote in a runoff. Bauer, to his credit, fired Marchant.
But it really doesn’t matter why they did it. In one sense, it doesn’t even matter if what they said was true. For a man to reveal such things about a woman violates an ancient code of conduct. To do so on the worldwide web and at a press conference carries the indignity to new, unimaginable heights.
Most people figured Haley was finished. Then, to the surprise of just about everybody, these public revelations had the opposite effect on GOP voters. Haley jumped many more points in the polls and never relinquished her lead. In the primary, she finished with 49 percent of the vote in a field of four. Lieutenant Governor Bauer trailed all others with 12 percent.
Why this reaction? You can be sure many South Carolinians looked at Folks and Marchant on TV and concluded that these losers couldn’t possibly have gotten to first base with a woman as attractive as Nikki Haley. And many who believed or half-believed the charges were so appalled by such obscene behavior that they voted for her in protest. During the general election, Folks took off his shining armor and published on his blog a detailed account of his alleged affair with Haley, an account any teenager, lying in bed on a hot summer night, could have dreamed up. Did he do it to make his earlier account more credible? If so, why? Or did he get paid once again, this time by the Democrats?
So what do you do with a man like that? History is no help. South Carolina-born Andrew Jackson fought 13 duels, most of them over his wife’s honor; but dueling is illegal in the 21st century. Besides, a gentleman doesn’t fight a duel with a social inferior. When Sen. Charles Sumner insulted a relative of South Carolina Sen. Preston Brooks, Brooks—observing the code—charged into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a gutta-percha cane. Today, you can’t even do that.
In fact, you can’t call such a man by his proper name. Here is where the linguistic problem arises. A hundred years ago there was a precise word for a jerk who enjoyed a woman’s favors and then talked about it. That word was cad, which has all but disappeared from our vocabulary. Indeed, nothing has emerged to replace it. Some readers of Folks have suggested “slime bucket.” Others have said “sleaze bag.” But these terms are much too vague. Besides, they fail to tie the conduct specifically to the treatment of women.
Still others point out that “white-trash” men typically mistreat women and that Folks was arrested for physically abusing his former fiancée and subsequently resigned his post as Gov. Mark Sanford’s chief of staff. But again, “white trash” is too broad a phrase and means a host of other things as well as lack of respect for women.
So here we are, with an identifiable type and no corresponding word. It’s a shame. The Beast is slowly gobbling up the English language.