Challenging Issues

Keeping up with the lexicon is practically a full-time job. And pretty darn near exhausting, as well.

Words that once meant one thing now mean another. Euphemisms once intended to gloss over subjects universally uncomfortable now skate over subjects personally peculiar.

More than a decade ago, a former student announced he had “issues” with zoos. Perplexing. Confusing. At least at the time. Today, though, one suspects everyone and their grandmother understands perfectly what was being said.

Issues once referred to a particular copy of a newspaper or a magazine. Maybe even an episode of a movie serial or a TV show. Didn’t it? Or “issues” referred to stuff that came out of some other thing: “water issued from the rock.”

No mo’. In fact, those tweedy old references are long a thing of the past. Issues are problems in Newspeak. Which is news to no one.

“Challenges” referred to a subject at once complicated and thought-provoking. Kind of an intellectually fun thing to possess. A mind-game (and well before the TV ads promising the stuff one can buy to stave off dementia) virtually certain to produce cognitive pleasure. Maybe one requiring considerable energy to research and develop arguments and supporting evidence for and, finally, articulate.

No mo’.

Challenges don’t refer to contests or competitions or even a negation to an assertion. They, too, represent problems, though not necessarily ones to be solved or overcome: “My job is challenging.” Which means: you may now stop working.

Today’s talk seems intended more to obfuscate than clarify. Language is intended as much to obscure and disguise as it is to misdirect and confuse. It’s as though we’re magicians in the (good) company of rabbits and multi-color handkerchiefs.

One is reminded of Winston Churchill’s description of Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

And, of course, it isn’t just today. This isn’t stuff someone just came up with over brunch last Sunday.

A rhetorician, maybe it was I.A. Richards (and I’m really digging deep into my undergraduate notes, here), said we sometimes use words as a club: to beat the Other into submission.

Or exasperation.

And I never, ever thought I’d trot out the reference to Richards. Goes to show what undergraduates know – or remember.

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