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Debasing Strong Words


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - June 7th, 2001

Coinage is debased when the valuable metal in the coins is replaced with cheaper metals. By mixing molten gold coins with copper, then making many more coins with a face value equal to the original coinage, a government may seem to be more solvent, but its money is debased-the base of its value (the gold) has been diluted.

Strong words, words with valuable uses, can also be debased-their meanings diluted by incorrect overuse by those who want to draw attention to something, but are too lazy to find the correct word for their need. Consider two words used often to denote a heinous act: abomination and desecration.

Abomination means "a loathsome, detestable, morally reprehensible, odious act or object." The word derives from the Latin for "omen" (i.e. something good from the gods) joined with the prefix for "as far away from this as one can get." An abomination is as far from good as a bad thing can be.

So, one should use "abomination" to describe truly horrible acts: violent sex with an infant, the slaughter of thousands of innocents, necrophilia-these might be fitting examples. One would do so, if one weren't a member of Congress

Elected officials appear to have a debased sense of the loathsome and odious. Note some of the items denoted as "abominations" in recent speeches on the floors of the House and Senate:

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia:
". . . the apparent appointment of Walter Kansteiner, which is an abomination, to be the assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. That appointment is an abomination." (Congressional Record (House) 05/09/01)

Senator Tom Daishle of South Dakota:
"There are three concerns we have with this budget resolution. I want to address each of them briefly and accommodate other Senators, if they wish to speak. The first is process. This process was an abomination." (Congressional record (Senate) 5/9/01)

Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin:
"Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said recently: ``The [tax] code today encompasses 9,500 pages of very small print. While every word in the code has some justification, in its entirety it is an abomination. It imposes $150 billion or more of annual cost on our society with no value creation.'' (Congressional record (Senate) 4/26/01)

Congressman Bob Riley of Alabama:
"When you have a great deal of the population living in clusters where there is absolutely no protection now, for us to make a determination that a local government should not be able to use these grants as they see fit to protect their citizens [from tornadoes] I think is an abomination of the process." (Congressional record (House) 3/22/01)

A word that once meant "loathsome and evil" now means "not in accordance with my opinion." Had these people desired, they could have found words that better fit these circumstances. They could have used "abhorrent" (inspiring disgust; hateful) or "despicable" (vile, contemptible)-words that convey the speaker's inability to support the action without misusing and debasing a valuable word.

A kindred fate has befallen the word "desecration." This word comes also from the noble Roman language; its root is the verb sacro/sacavi/sacatus/sacare, which means to set apart as sacred, to devote to the gods, to render holy". The prefix "de-" means "from, out of". De-sacare means "to remove from holiness, to render it unfit for the gods, to take its sacredness from it."

Desecration was used, rightly in Rhetorix' opinion, to describe the destruction by the Taliban of the ancient standing Buddha statues in Afghanistan. It is less aptly used to describe the burning of the American flag by protesters; many honor this national symbol but they do not pray to it nor have they declared it to be solely for the use of God (the original meaning of "sacare".)

The current, debased meaning of desecration is used in the following quote from James Ragland, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News:

The big picture is clear: The desecration of St. Luke's [Community United Methodist Church] is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks there no longer is a need to guard against blind hatred." Column: "Step Back and See the Sad Truth", 05/07/01 )

How does someone remove the holiness from an entire church? One paints a swastika on it with latex paint left by construction workers.

In earlier times, it took the stabling of horses in the sanctuary, the use of the altar vessels and linens for drunken orgies, and the trampling of consecrated communion wafers underfoot to make a church unholy. It took deliberate, willful effort to remove the holiness from a church. Nowadays, a bit of paint and "poof!"-the whole building is now an abomination to God and unfit for use in worship.

Graffiti, even that featuring hate emblems, is more akin to a mess that must be cleaned up than it is desecration. A better word for this act of vandalism is "defilement" with its primary definition of "to make dirty, pollute, befoul." Any god worth worshipping knows the difference between a foulness that needs removal and a deliberate act meant to force that god to forsake its temple.

The word "defilement", like "abhorrent" and "despicable" are the tools of educated, thinking people, those who are not too lazy to search for the correct tool for the job. Those who wield "abomination" and "desecration" for minor matters not only debase these words, they demonstrate their ineptitude with their own language.

Rhetorix knows that she is addressing brick walls when she addresses such people, but such is the lot of a recondite rhetorician.

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"... A word that once meant "loathsome and evil" now means "not in accordance with my opinion."..."

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