I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which language can degrade, especially when the object of a given word or phrase is not held in high esteem. For example, the word spinster simply used to mean a woman who spun thread. Over the years, the word came to mean an unmarried woman (it was the legal term on wedding documents in Victorian England). It has ended up meaning a dessicated, barren virgin. Another word that made an even more extreme transition in meaning is “beldam.” Its origin is the medieval French phrase “belle dam,” which translates to “beautiful mother” (or grandmother). Its current meaning, of course, is ugly old hag.
When a term becomes degraded, members of the class encompassed within the term often seek to introduce a new word or phrase that is free from any negative baggage. The nomenclature for American blacks is a perfect example, since they have long been a linguistically disfavored group. In the last 100 years, the polite (as opposed to derogatory terms) for African-Americans traveled this lengthy linguistic path: colored person, negro, black, African-American, person of color, African-American/black. My daughter is perpetually confused by the African-American phrase, and insists on calling all black people of color “Africans.” I don’t blame her for the confusion, although I keep reminding her that these “Africans” have roots extending much further back into America than we do.
One of the most brilliant cartoons I ever saw was one that Berkeley Breathed published in the late 1980s or early 1990s. In it, Steve Dallas, perpetual preppie, was standing by his old-fashioned mother as a little black boy walked boy. Said his mother, “Oh, look at that cute little colored boy.” Steve writhed. “Mom, you can’t say that,” and the following dialogue (which I’m reconstructing from memory) ensued:
Mom: Oh. Negro boy?
Mom: Black boy?
Steve: No, that’s not right.
Mom: African-American boy?
Steve: No, Mom. He’s a “person of color.”
Mom: But that’s what I said: “col0red boy.”
The travails of African-Americans illustrates something very important about language: you can change the term, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you change the public attitude about the person or group encompassed within the term. Had American people respected blacks at all times, “negro” would never have taken on demeaning connotations. The problem isn’t the word, it’s the user’s attitude.
This harsh linguistic fact is something that the Democrats have recognized and they’ve therefore leaped with relief on Kennedy’s death as a means of remedying the problem. They know that the label ObamaCare has become inextricably intertwined in the public mind with a program that only the most hardcore Democratic faithful want. For the vast majority of Americans, the phrase “ObamaCare” sends shivers of revulsion up and down their spines. (There’s also the problem, as I’ve noted before, that, unlike Bill Clinton, who was able to escape some of the taint of “HillaryCare,” Obama’s identity is now inextricably intertwined with “ObamaCare.”)
There is, therefore, a desperate effort amongst Congressional Democrats to relabel a revolting product in the hope that they can fool the American people. Drudge exposes the Democrats’ new plan: “HEALTH BILL FROM THE GRAVE: DEMS RALLY AROUND OBAMAKENNEDYCARE.” Nancy Pelosi was not subtle (but is she ever?):
“Ted Kennedy’s dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, declared after his death Tuesday.
For people with their heads stuck in their Foggy Bottoms, this re-branding seems logical. After all, if you served 20 years or more in Congress with the affable murderer, it would make perfect sense to you that tacking his name on a project would create an instant cachet that can be sold to all your fellow Congress people. Those of us out in the sticks, though, real people who recognize that Kennedy got the kind of health care that will be denied to all of us (although still made available to his former colleagues) are likely to be less impressed by the relabeling.
Shakespeare said “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Bookworm says “What’s in a name? That which we call ObamaCare by any other name would still stink to high political heaven.”