The children's ditty -- "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" -- is only half right, as any wounded kid who ever chanted it knows full well, as anyone who has ever looked at the language of oppression -- or the language of politicians -- knows, too.
In Nazi Germany -- to cite the most grisly example of modern times -- the murder of millions of Jews became not murder at all but the innocuous "final solution," as if it had something to do with algebra. What made it possible, George Steiner wrote in "Language and Silence," was "The unspeakable being said, over and over, for 12 years. The unthinkable being written down, indexed, filed for reference." The unacceptable and inadmissible, couched in a pseudoscientific, dispassionate language of reason that turned reason on its head, became acceptable and admissible; and then it came to be. It was all a lie, of course, but the lie by repetition became the truth, debasing not only the language but the speaker and plunging the world into a nightmare.
That is why words are so important, and why it is so important to say precisely what we mean -- to let the meaning determine the words, rather than the other way around. Black is not white, no matter how many times we say it. If we say it enough times, however, we'll come to believe it. I suppose that accounts for Vice President George Bush's assertions in the debate last Thursday that the rulers of El Salvador were "struggling to perfect their democracy."
Nice phrase, perfecting democracy, but let's be careful. The government of El Salvador may well be struggling to perfect democracy, but government security forces or right-wing death squads have in fact murdered 42,000 people over the last five years. Mr. Bush also -- and rather bizarrely -- said that "the freedom fighters . . . want to see democracy perfected in Nicaragua." Surely no one supposes that a benign democracy is reigning there, either, but whatever is going on in Nicaragua -- and honorable people differ about what that is -- it is not perfecting democracy; it's a struggle to overthrow the government. If we're going to talk about these things we have to acknowledge what is actually going on. Words must correspond to reality, and the reality is not pleasant either in El Salvador or in Nicaragua. We cannot see what we would like to see; we must struggle to see -- and to say -- what is actually there. It is not always easy.
In an unpublished paper on language and politics, John M. Donnelly writes, "Caring for language is a responsibility and like most responsibilities, it is easier to abdicate than to meet. Yet shirking the responsibility for accurate prose is in large measure shirking the responsibility for thought." He cites George Orwell: ". . . the ready-made phrases will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."
Words are such mysterious, elusive presences, floating through the air, running across the page, playing in the mind -- sometimes, like a line of music, coming back to haunt us. Still, without them we are if not literally nothing, nothing distinguishable from the beasts of the forest or the fishes of the sea: feeling creatures, no doubt, but unable to describe the feeling, only to react to it.
"In the beginning was the word," as St. John wrote in his Gospel, and he was right. The word is the beginning of consciousness, for the race of man and for every individual in it, and as the arrangement of words grows into a system of language so does consciousness develop and grow. Language is also the beginning of responsibility, a word whose Latin root means to respond (answer, justify, defend). Without language we can react like the beasts and the fishes; with it we can respond like men and women, responsibly. One of the things we are responsible for is the language itself, next to life our most precious possession.
There is no language without thought -- or at least intelligence. But it is equally true that there is no thought without language. Sometimes, there is no thought with language, and language can be used to blur distinctions as well as to sharpen them, to muddy thought as well as to clarify it. Everyone ought to remember that, especially when listening to our politicians.