Tuesday, 30 May 2017

When Language Gets Hijacked

In New Zealand at the moment there is a big ecological push to flush out and exterminate the country’s “predators”. I put the word in quotes because, by dictionary definition, a predator is “an animal that hunts, kills, and eats other animals.” Animals like lions, tigers, wolves, hawks, and owls might spring to mind. Implied in the word is a connotation of “dangerous” and “bad”.

Brushtail Possum, photo from Wikipedia
In New Zealand, however, the word “predator” is coming to mean any animal not native to New Zealand, regardless of its diet, which is assumed to be harmful to New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna. This, oddly enough (if you honour the traditional definition) includes brushtail possums, rats, deer, feral pigs, and magpies, as well as stoats and feral cats (which are “true” predators), but NOT native hawks or owls or tuatara or insect-eating fantails and weta (large indigenous insects themselves) which are also “true” predators.

It bothers me when a word is hijacked by politicians or marketers and given a new meaning that is simply accepted by the public, usually opening up opportunities for somebody to make a whole bunch of money. In this case, it’s the chemical poison industry, who get to drop tonnes of 1080 baits over New Zealand’s forests every year, and manufacture and lay brodificoum and cyanide ground poisons. That’s great for not only production but also employment—people’s jobs are on the line. The latest political splash, which has gained some notoriety around the world, is a plan to make New Zealand “predator-free” by 2050—and they’re not talking about lions and tigers. Or tuatara or wetas or native hawks.

I have some pretty strong thoughts on the roles of various animals in natural ecosystems, but this post is about language use, so I’ll leave that issue for another piece of writing. Instead, I’d like to bring up another personal language “peeve”.

Photo from CBS article linked in text.
The word “antidepressant” first appeared in 1959 in the New York Times to describe two new drugs, imipramine and ipronazid, which appeared to ‘reverse psychic states’. This appealing word took the world by storm, and was soon on the lips—and in the advertising--of every pharmaceutical marketer wanting to market new drugs. Clinical trials, almost all run by the drug companies who make the drugs, all showed limited benefit over placebo (a fake “med”) of their “antidepressants” and often a bevy of side effects to boot, but when a drug was marketed as an “antidepressant”, both patients and doctors were eager to buy and try. After all, nobody wants to be depressed, right? Today we know that antidepressant drugs can make depression worse in the long term, and can even cause suicidality, but the power of the word, and the idea that something can easily fix depression is so powerful that few people can even grasp the idea that an “antidepressant” may not be—in dictionary terms—an anti-depressant at all.

These examples aside, I accept and appreciate that our language is an evolving entity, and that dictionary definitions are not created by word police but by us, ourselves, with our language usage. I’m not bothered by new words that creep into everyday conversations and, eventually, make it into dictionaries like lol, app, and google as a verb. Nor am I usually bothered by words whose meanings change, often dramatically; think gay, ace, cool, and hot for starters, though I still snag sometimes at mother.

On this theme of our changing language, and to end this post on a positive and more generic note, this link goes to an interesting list of 20 common words (i.e., nice, awful, fizzle, wench) whose meanings have significantly changed over time, and an excellent TED talk on language change from Ann Curzan. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback. Allow time for it to be posted.