Shakespeare famously asked “what is in a name?” Actually, a lot; modern language is about more than aptly describing the world; it’s about describing the way we want to view the world. With a little clever diction, we can turn the mundane and the pathetic into something more. The British have “news readers;” Americans have “news anchors.” The position of secretary has been replaced by the “executive assistant.” People don’t have problems; they have “issues.” It is the opposite of Newspeak: instead of removing meaning from words, they are imbued with more meaning than the things they are describing.
However, these liberally-defined connotations can backfire. Words carry multiple meanings, and when we try to give them new ones, an ironic contrast can arise. One example is the title of “mayor” on Foursquare. This social networking site tracks members’ locations; the person who spends the most time at a specific location, like a favorite coffee shop or bar, becomes the “mayor.”
Foursquare did not invent this term. City dwellers have been electing “mayors” at their neighborhood bars for decades, but the term had a little less reverence than it gets on Foursquare. Pre-internet “mayors” were usually senile old men, the kind of people who had nothing better to do but sit in a bar all day. It was a sarcastic title for someone who, like it or not, was a fixture of a certain establishment.
Foursquare users like to think being the “mayor” makes them popular but they are really continuing a proud tradition started by a bunch of irascible old coots. Either way, one person loiters in a bar because they have nothing better to do.
Another example of connotative backfire is the frequent use of the word “consumer.” This word is used to describe the buying public; “we are a nation of consumers,” a recent credit card ad declared. Non-professional electronics are known as “consumer electronics,” and the people buying them are advised by Consumer Reports.
“Consumer” is an accurate term, and it sounds more neutral than “buyer” or “sucker.” Still, it has another use that could spoil many ad campaigns. Organizations that serve developmentally disabled people have a problem. Cases like Willowbrook (the New York mental institution whose abuse of patients was famously exposed by Geraldo Rivera) have made the public more sensitive to the mistreatment of the mentally ill and the need to view them as autonomous human beings. Due to the diversity of services these agencies provide, a single term like “patient” won’t cut it, and “client” was thought to imply too much dependence. Consequently, the people these agencies serve are known as consumers.
An attempt to make life’s endless stream of financial transactions into a lifestyle and economic system was borrowed to make the developmentally disabled feel better about themselves and their relationship with caregivers. The comparison may benefit those people, but other American consumers might not appreciate the comparison.
The Bard was right: words are only descriptors of what we encounter. And their impermanence is heightened by the constant process of redefinition. Modern linguists seem most interested in using words to cover reality in shiny, attractive packaging. This is how language evolves, but people attempting to make the world seem classier through creative connotation should be wary of the “mayors” and “consumers” that came before them.