In his song “Kill a Word,” Eric Church fantasizes about having the ability to eradicate certain words from the English language. The song targets words that speak to our lesser angels and darker moments as humans and includes such words as regret, fear, lonely, hate, evil, and so on. Clearly Church, who is a very intelligent man, was under no delusion regarding the impracticability of his wish and understood that words are not actually things, rather, they merely name things that are tangible or experienceable. Within seconds of “killing” a word, another word would be invented to take its place; therefore, the attempt would be a perfect example of throwing effort after foolishness. Church’s entire song is written in a subjunctive mood, which indicates that he is aware that what he writes is imagined or contrary to fact, as in what I would do “if I won a billion dollars in the lottery.”
In actuality, there are few systems more democratic than language. As much as grammarians or academicians may wish and attempt to control the words people use and the way they use them, in the end such language prigs are powerless to prevent the will of speakers and writers to use words any way they damn well please. For example, as children, folks of my generation were regularly chided that “Ain’t ain’t a word!” To which I always wanted to argue that they had just used it as such. It was spoken. I heard it. I understood it. So, how could it not be a word? With apologies to N.W.A, “F#ck the Grammar Police!”
Or a more recent battle many defenders of language and grammar purity have been fighting is the popular use of the singular “their,” as in “Everyone should exercise their right to vote.” Technically, “everyone” is singular, and it should be replaced with “his or her”; however, the people want to use “their” in a singular form and the people – as it should be – have won. Even most teachers of college composition, like myself, have thrown in the towel on this. Resisting its use was like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.
Power to the people.
A number of nations actually have institutions devoted to the preservation of their language’s purity. Two of the most famous are France’s Academie Francaise and the Royal Spanish Academy. Most Americans are probably unaware of these organizations because, well, we’re Americans and we pretty much believe the world beyond our borders is irrelevant to our own or vastly inferior and because we do not have such an academy of our own. The closest thing we have is probably the Modern Language Association, whose stated goal is to “strengthen the study and teaching of “language and literature.” Such organizations tend to be exceptionally conservative and opposed to change.
Lacking Church’s self-awareness and genuinely good intentions, Sarah Huckabee – the newly elected governor of Arkansas, a state that U.S. News ranks as 41st in quality of education, 43rd in quality of infrastructure, and 49th in quality of healthcare – made her first priority in office the “killing” of the word Latinx, which she demanded be expunged from all extant state documents and banned from all future ones. In typical right wing, Orwellian doublespeak, she claims it is an attempt to “prohibit the use of culturally insensitive words” although the word’s preference among an admittedly small segment of the population (nonbinary Latinos and Latinas) is a request on their part that others be “sensitive” to their nonbinary status.
Huckabee vaunts the support of conservative Spanish language purists, which I’m sure she possesses, as such people are inherently protective of past practices and systems. However, the so-called banning of the word is actually yet another thinly-veiled salvo fired in a culture war directed at folks who do not share Huckabee’s and other like minded bigots’ conservative Christian ideology. Huckabee’s move is that of a bully, and like one, she directs her abuse at an easy and relatively powerless victim.
Well, good luck with that, Governor.
All authors know that the best thing that can happen to one of their books is to have intolerant, self-righteous prudes like Sarah Huckabee ban it from schools, libraries, and bookstores. Nothing sells more books than their banning. Perhaps, Sarah should remember the biblical result of forbidden fruit.
In the end, she may be able to kill a word’s existence in a slew of government documents that nobody reads anyway, but it is all-but-impossible to ban the sounds that form the words that spill from people’s mouths.
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