George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.
The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.
Balistreri is harsh on small talk, preferring to banish it if it does not lead swiftly to more substantial communication. Her prescriptions can be dismissive: like as a discourse particle is ‘worse than mindless’ – a judgement that overlooks its pragmatic utility. But the book takes on subtler and more worthy targets. The perennial scapegoating of technology, for example, she neatly torpedoes:
Technology doesn’t make me do anything, it lets me do anything. It enables me to see someone face-to-face and it spares me from seeing someone face-to-face. It lets me connect or avoid. . . . Half the people in my life have never used a keyboard. They aren’t necessarily better at conversation than the rest of us are.
This discussion comes in the chapter making = letting, which then offers a series of choice examples: ‘Social media is making us become self-obsessed narcissists’; ‘The availability of online shopping is making people shop less in brick-and-mortar stores’. Inviting us to replace one word with the other – the evasive with the evaded – is a fun way to illustrate and reinforce the point.
This structure, repeated throughout the book (along with fuller taxonomies of the more versatile words actually, like, so, sorry, and whatever), makes lets us focus on a particular expression and become sensitive to its shabbier applications. In doing so we may, with a wince, recognise our own occasionally unwholesome use of it, or that of a friend or colleague.
Other equivalences astutely analysed include feel = am (‘I hate when I do that. I feel so disloyal’); but = because (‘I’m behind on all my projects but I don’t like to stress out about it’); sensitive = insensitive (‘I think it’s so great that you volunteer. I couldn’t do it. It would make me cry. I’m too sensitive’); and should = won’t (‘Oh, you’re a poet? Yeah. You know, I really should read more poetry’).
These are all common, unassuming words, and all the slipperier for that. They are, as Balistreri puts it:
the mainstays of speech that can go unexamined, those throwaway words by which we reveal what we mean, no matter how hard we try not to.
In hoping to ‘inject a little self-consciousness’ into our everyday discourse, her book succeeds in sharp and entertaining fashion. You can order The Evasion-English Dictionary from your preferred source via Balistreri’s website.
[Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book.]