An exploration and celebration of language and all of it's many quirks, with KMUW commentator Lael Ewy.

Hear OnWords on alternate Tuesdays or find it on iTunes.

OnWords: Narrative

Sep 4, 2018

It has always bothered me that grant proposals always require “narratives.”

Grant narratives are generally so highly structured that they could not possibly resemble narrative as we commonly use the term.

Coming from a background in creative writing, I think of a narrative as telling a story. I don’t think of narrative as just any piece of prose that happens not to be strictly analytical. Indeed, a really cracker-jack writer can present an analysis that tells a story or a story that provides an analysis—all while keeping the integrity of the story intact.

When Wichita State University’s Education Department recently changed its name to the College of Applied Studies, it may have aligned them with university goals, but it was a blow to plain language.

George Orwell warned us 70 years ago of such doublespeak. At the time, Orwell was writing about tyrannical governments, but if there is anything the intervening years have revealed, it’s that damage to plain language can be practiced by any totalizing system, whether it’s the state or an economic system or even a well-meaning social movement.

I ran across a phrase online the other day that I hadn’t seen in a while: “What, U mad?” with the letter “U” substituted for the word spelled “y-o-u.”

I don’t normally hang out where this phrase is used—it’s a way internet trolls tweak their targets—but the usage suddenly struck me as woefully out of date.

OnWords: Performance

Jul 24, 2018

Those of us who work for someone other than ourselves become so used to “performance reviews” that we seldom stop to consider what they mean.

Though commonly used in human resources circles, the word “performance” implies that our workplaces are ethically fraught.

The word “performance” is supposed to indicate valuable feedback on how to do our jobs better, how to produce more efficiency and create more value.

But we also know that the main effect is to make us anxious and, if we underperform, subject to dismissal.

“Our most vulnerable” is a term we use to transfer an audience’s pity from others and onto whoever isusing the term.

Consider its use: when we label groups such as the homeless, the elderly, and children as “our most vulnerable” we draw attention away from them as people and onto whatever probably terrible scheme we have in mind.

Late spring and early summer is wheat harvest season in Kansas, and it has me thinking about how deeply agricultural metaphors interweave into common speech.

This is maybe a bit surprising, considering how few of us actually farm.

Even in urban settings, we “reap what we sow.” And Russian web-bots have been accused of “sowing the seeds” of dissent in American elections.

Heavy eaters are still admonished for “eating like pigs” and “hogging” their food, even though few of us have seen real swine at the trough.

OnWords: Is Unacceptable

Jun 12, 2018

At some point we’ve all heard or said that something or other (quote) “is unacceptable.”

“Is unacceptable” is one of those phrases that seep through the language and bubble up seemingly everywhere.

But there are a few things very wrong with it.

“Is unacceptable” glosses over by whose standards acceptability is being measured. When we say it, what we really mean is that we don’t like something, but the passive construction allows us to avoid the fact that we’re the ones doing the unliking.

OnWords: Identity

May 29, 2018

More fundamental than the issue of so-called identity politics is the definition of identity itself.

My work in the mental health field has me facilitating workshops on culture and its impact on work in human services.

In these workshops, we inevitably end up talking about the idea that various cultural forces are at play in forming an identity and creating a worldview.

But isn’t “identity” itself a concept of the Western world?

Recently, our president used the words “mission accomplished” to describe military action in Syria.

The phrase immediately brought up a famous faux pas: George W. Bush slapping the same term across an aircraft carrier to proclaim the same in Iraq.

That statement turned out not to be true, and US forces fight and die there still.

Various theories of language, notably the Sapir-Whorf theory support the idea that language creates reality for language users.

And while some visual artists and musicians might argue the point, there’s something to it.

Successful political initiatives define the terms of political debate before the debate even begins. Thus the estate tax becomes the “death tax,” the poor become lazy, and unfettered access to guns becomes freedom.