The End of Language

In a week full of depressing headlines, nothing we’ve read so far has left us quite so glum as a professor’s lament at site on the far academic corners of the internet. Writing at the on-line Library of Law and Liberty, in an article appropriately titled “The End is Nigh,” Professor Diana Schaub of Maryland’s Loyola University recounts her difficulties in teaching a class of college students the following lines from James Madison in the Federalist Papers: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
The dispirited professor reports that her students were flummoxed by the words, unable to understand how someone so reputedly smart as Madison would think that justice will bring an end to government. She helpfully explained that Madison meant “end” as a synonym for “purpose” or “intention” rather than “conclusion” or “demise,” something that should be obvious to a college-level reader by the third sentence, but was surprised to find that no one in her class had ever heard of the word “end” being used in that sense. Apparently the admissions standards at Loyola University and similarly well-regarded institutions are not so strict that they require students to have read widely enough to have encountered this common usage, or to have been warned about ends about justifying means, or to ask themselves to what end they are bothering to pursue an over-priced education. “Teaching young people is getting harder,” Schaub sighs at the outset of her article, and we share her sadness.
Schaub’s well-written article continues with an intriguing etymology of “end,” complete with Thomas Hobbes’ decisive influence on its current definition, which we must admit was news to us, die-hard Hobbesians though we are, and she endearingly regrets that today’s young generation hasn’t been schooled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646 and its aphorism that “Man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy God forever,” but one needn’t reach such scholarly heights to notice the dumbing-down of America. Over the past few decades of writing for the general public we have been informed of an alarming diminution of the American vocabulary by angry letters from readers who resented being forced to look up such fancy-schmantzy words as “eschew” or “quotidian,” and we’ve often encountered blank stares from people who are first encountering words that were recently well known to even the occasional reader. We sometimes feel as if we’re living in the classic satire “Idiocracy,” which portrayed a world so degraded by 500 years of un-selective breeding that even the street-level language of today is regarded as “faggy” and downright threatening. Accustomed as we are to people being perplexed by anything sesquipedalian, it’s still sobering to contemplate that college students are now unable to cope with once-familiar three-letter-words.
A fellow we know was mightily offended by our use of the word “fop,” a delightfully short burst of language that sneers contempt for any man who pays excessive attention to his clothing and physical appearance, and not because we had accused him of foppery. “Ken” is also a three-letter-word, and we no longer assume that anyone knows it can mean “comprehension” or “understanding.” Any word arcane is now considered highfalutin, and anything more dated than the latest text-message acronym is rapidly becoming arcane. These limits on the language have a limiting effect on the ideas that people express, of course, and always to baleful effect.
The disappearance of the word “fop” from the language seems to have coincided with the disappearance of society’s sneering contempt for men who take excessive pride in their physical appearance that it once conveyed, for instance, and as a result American society is inundated with preening pretty boys and empty but immaculately fashioned suits. Such nebulous and neutral words as “hope” and “change” can unleash eight years of disastrous taxing and pork barrel spending and over-regulation and God only knows what sort of foreign policy madness, while such once valuable words as “merit” and “liberty” are derided by the deconstructionists and their impenetrable academic jargon as racist code. The permeability of the language has even infected our politics, where laws such as the Obamacare act are apparently not intended by their authors to be read as they are written, and even the Constitution is open to whatever interpretation fits the moment’s needs.
An otherwise admirably conservative friend of ours is constantly arguing with us that language must continually evolve, a position we attribute to a lingering resentment of his poor marks in his long-ago English classes, but even he was appalled to hear about college students who can’t understand that you don’t always reach an “end” at the “end.” Language needs to keep up with the present, but it also needs to provide a connection to our civilization’s glorious past. Justice truly is the end of government, the chief end of man truly is to glorify and enjoy God forever, and if such brilliant truths are now beyond our ken the end truly is nigh.

— Bud Norman

The Great #%@& Emancipator

That Abe Lincoln fellow was one foul-mouthed son of a gun. This is one of the surprising historical tidbits to be found in the new motion picture “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s much-ballyhooed biopic about the late president.

Or so we’re told by The Hollywood Reporter, at any rate. We haven’t actually seen the movie, partly because we’re among the tiny minority of Americans who are not enamored of Spielberg’s work and partly because Netflix isn’t yet able to mail it to our front porch, but the report seems plausible enough. It seems to be a rare flick these days that doesn’t have plentiful cussing, and there’s no reason that a supposedly serious tribute to one of the few remaining revered figures in American history should be an exception to that rule.

The Hollywood Reporter’s reporter found some disagreement among Lincoln biographers about the historical accuracy of the language in the movie. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the hottest Lincoln scholar ever since her “Team of Rivals” hit the best-seller list a few years ago, said she had no problem with it and that she even encouraged the screenwriter to include one of the president’s favorite ribald jokes. James McPherson, whose Lincoln scholarship includes a well-reviewed book about the president’s “Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” said it was unlikely that The Great Emancipator was prone to such frequent outbursts of profanity.

Such disputes cannot be definitively settled, of course, because until recent times writers rarely resorted to impolite words. People have always cussed, and it’s likely that a backwoods rail-splitter such as Lincoln would occasionally let loose with some saltiness, but his contemporaries would not have recorded it for prosperity. Our guess is that someone in Lincoln’s more rigidly moral times would have made note of it if he had made a habit of cursing in respectable circles, and we also note that Lincoln was a man of such legendary eloquence that he probably saved his cursing for only the most appropriate moments, but one never knows for sure.

There’s also no certainty that whatever cussing Lincoln did was comparable to what’s in the movie. Just as the rest of the English language has evolved over the past many years, for better and worse, cussing has also likely changed. The etymology of curse words is difficult to trace because of the lack of written citations, but we suppose that someone of Lincoln’s rural background was more prone to scatological rather than sexual language.

Although we have no objection to cussing in the movies whenever it is necessary for verisimilitude, such as in the fine “Patton” biopic of the famously salty general, it hardly seems necessary in a movie about Lincoln. The intention was probably to make Lincoln seem more human to modern audiences, but surely there were ways to do so that would haven’t provoked historical debates or kept younger children away from the movie. Spielberg has generally kept clean in previous movies, which may be one reason for his extraordinary popular success, and it’s hard to figure why he would deviate from that habit for a Lincoln flick.

Critics have been mixed about “Lincoln,” and the ones we trust most have panned it, but apparently the movie doesn’t try to portray the first Republican president as a 21st Century lefty of the spread-the-wealth variety. That’s a welcome relief, given that Hollywood routinely does sanitizes even the likes of Queen Victoria in biopics and that liberals have been trying to claim Lincoln as one of their since at least the days when the Lincoln Brigade went off to fight for the commies in the Spanish Civil War. If “Lincoln” had turned out to be another bit of Tinseltown agitprop, we’d have been cussing up a storm.

— Bud Norman