What’s in a Word?
By David Weinstein
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
By the time you read this, the City Council will have decided on whether to censure Councilmember Peter Blake for, among other things, making a disparaging remark about a fellow Councilmember, Toni Iseman. I’m not going to opine on the politics of this, but I feel compelled to weigh in on the act itself. This is because it involves words, specifically the word “slag,” and I am a writer. So, let me start out by saying, “dude – this was a bad word choice!”
By this time, Councilmember Blake might even agree with me. More so, because I’ve heard, despite public behavior to the contrary, one-on-one he’s supposed to be a reasonable and affable person. And likewise, the target of his aspersions, Councilmember Iseman. Although, I cannot personally attest as I have not had the pleasure of meeting either.
But back to the word “slag.” It sounds bad, clipped and guttural. And like the names of those drugs always being hawked on the Hallmark Channel (hey, my wife watches it, not me), it is vaguely suggestive of several similar-sounding words, so it is guilty by association before it’s even had a proper trial. One of the similar words that comes to mind is hag. I’ll let you work on the other one that starts with S-L. Neither is flattering. In fact, when I read the accusation in the paper it sent me scampering to the dictionary. I found the common definition in my Webster’s New World Third College Edition, circa 1987. The one I bought for the girls when they were still in school. I had to go online to find the other and more obscure meaning, a British slang. Before I looked, for all I knew the word might have been a term of endearment a Welsh miner uses for a favored pub mate. It was not. And while in his defense the Councilmember claimed he was referring to the more common definition – a burned-out waste product from a blast furnace versus the British slang (a trollop), he may be making too fine a distinction here.
I’d like to remind you, I’m the humor guy, not Dear Abby or a political columnist, but I do have a few bits of constructive advice for Councilmember Blake – next time you want to excoriate a colleague or critic in public, just make up a word. This is happening in popular culture so often it’s hard to keep up with. You will baffle your opponents and have plausible deniability. Plus, everyone will have to keep repeating the word, which is just good fun in itself. If all else fails, say it in Yiddish!
On a separate note, while I understand the best decisions and solutions are forged in the crucible of public debate, it would be nice to turn down the heat a notch. Everyone is already weary from the last four years.
David is your friendly neighbor to the north and, like Canada, is watching all the goings-on to the south with wonderment.