Monday, April 25, 2011

What's in a Word?

Menacing Menaces who Menace....

Currently at my job I'm working with some newspaper clippings of a university professor who had emigrated from Russia to Germany after the Russian Revolution and then emigrated again from Germany to the United States when the Nazi Party took power in Germany.

At any rate, the clippings indicate that the professor, who taught Russian and European history, naturally, was called upon often to give talks and lectures and participate in panel discussions. In the late 1940's and early 1950's pretty much every single one of these talks and lectures dealt with Communism in Russia and the "threat" that such posed to the United States.

What struck me, though, as I went through these files is how often, in fact almost every single time, the word "menace" is used to describe the subject of the talk. "Is Communism a Menace to America?", "America and the Red Menace", etc., etc., etc.

And that, in turn, got me thinking about the way we use words and the words that we use. According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary the word "menace" means: "A dangerous or possibly harmful person or thing." "Someone who causes trouble or annoyance." "A dangerous or threatening quality."

Looking at the cold definitions it really takes some of the menace out of "menace". Yet when we hear that word it conjures up images of dark, skulking figures ready to do us harm or else looming, large-scale disaster. Words are infected with emotion and it is interesting to note how, once people understand this more, they end up using words to deliberately invoke those emotional reactions -- sometimes to the point it becomes a meme. Think about it -- how many times in Cold War era literature, movie, or TV have you heard the phrase "The Red Menace?" It really became to the point where you couldn't seem to use "Red" *without* using "Menace" as well. Or use "Communism" without "Menace".

It's something to take note of. Here's a little homework challenge -- listen to your everyday life for the next couple of days. Listen to the news, the TV, the radio, and start listening to the phrases and the 'shorthand' used. See if you can pick up on any words or phrases deliberately used to try to invoke emotional responses or else tie certain people or ideas togethers.

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