Tuesday, June 29, 2004


Musings #57
June 23, 2004


“Perish” is a strange word. I’m an English teacher, and I had never thought about it until yesterday when I went to Yad V’Shem with my parents. According to whoever wrote the signs, the explanations, in that enormous holocaust museum, there was no “murder” of Jews by the nazis; nobody died of forced malnutrition and nobody from lack of proper medical care or warm clothes in the winter. The Jews just “perished.”

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition perish: “be destroyed; suffer death or ruin; deteriorate; rot…”
There’s something arbitrary in the resulting death, not at all like the “Final Solution,” the systematic murder of German and then European Jewry. People perish in a blizzard or perished when the Titanic sank, but Jews were murdered in the gas chambers, by cruel sadistic medical experiments, by forced malnutrition, etceteras, ad nauseum. The word “perish” is much too weak to describe what happened to the six million Jews who were murdered.

Linguistically, “perished” has a “passive” feeling about it, “be destroyed…suffer death.” This year I taught my 9th grade, top level group, the Passive Tense. I tore a piece of paper and had them say it in Active Tense: “The teacher tore the paper.” Then in Passive Tense: “The paper was torn by the teacher.” To me, reading that people “perished” demands that I know by what means they perished, just like in the Passive Tense.

I admit that I’m rather hyper-sensitive to the subtlest nuances of words. When a newsreader states that: “A settler was killed in a drive-by shooting.” My linguistic antennae buzz and shriek in alarm. The sentence may be grammatically correct, but its every word and term are filled will political messages.

A settler: by not using the term “Israeli citizen” we are being delegitimized as Israelis.
was killed: as if the person incidentally died in a car accident. And the accident could have had been his own fault.
drive-by shooting: A “drive-by shooting” could be criminal, or even some sort of sick prank, but it wasn’t. It was a terror attack, an ambush. An Arab terrorist deliberately aimed at Israelis in an Israeli car fully intending to murder them.

In my opinion, the announcement (if G-d forbid it ever happens again) should be: “An Israeli was murdered by an Arab terrorist, who shot him as he was traveling on the road.” Think of the differences in the messages of the two sentences. They both report the same event, but they imply different things. Language is very powerful. It’s a major weapon in psychological and political warfare.

Sticks and stones can break my bones,
But words can never harm me.

I grew up hearing that rhyme, and it’s a lie! Words can be very harmful, very dangerous. Each word has its message. No two words are exactly the same. News editors, politicians (their advisors and speech writers), public relations and advertising consultants put enormous efforts into choosing the exact words to get their messages across.

We must not be shy or wary about correcting words “loaded” with potentially dangerous messages, whether they are used intentionally or even unintentionally. This “battle” is one in which we can all take part.

We all have a job to do. Don’t be embarrassed to use the “correct” words, even if you’re the only one. And don’t be shy about reminding others, whether in polite conversation or by writing to newspapers, news editors, politicians and others.

Batya Medad, Shiloh


Paul Mitchell said...

Oh, how right you are. Moving post. G-d bless you and keep you safe.

Batya said...