Monday, October 12, 2009



Our language is organic. Words that meant something 50 years ago mean something completely different today. Even words that meant something 10 years might have changed. "Gay" and "epic" come to mind. So does "fail." All this interests me because it shows that language is never static. I might complain when words degenerate or mutate because I became accustomed to their older usages. But words change by nature. Language evolves much more quickly than we do. In many ways, we should be thankful for that.

But many linguistic changes deserve condemnation. In particular, I do not like changes that weaken a word's impact or meekly skirt a concept without piercing its heart. Euphemisms fall into this category. To say "collateral damage" when you mean "bombs veered off target and killed 42 children," you are not conveying reality with your language. Put simply, euphemisms reveal discomfort with language. They also reveal a discomfort with the truth, to the extent that we can all agree that something happened at a certain time and place. When a speaker resorts to euphemism, he fears what will happen if he uses truthful language. Euphemism, then, sacrifices linguistic accuracy for the speaker's comfort. In the end, everyone loses; only historians and investigators will find the truth behind meek language.

Euphemisms are not the only linguistic dilutions that obscure truth. In recent years, a nauseating "corporate" language has developed that not only obscures truth, but also fundamentally betrays traditional etymological meaning. This development coincides with rising corporate influence on American government, as well as the hypnotic "career myth" that permeates modern American society. Corporations wield far more power than they like to admit. And they do not just wield economic and social power. Through language, they wield a power over meaning that transcends generations.

In the movie "Into the Wild," the main character is a wanderer who rejects a "traditional approach" to life by venturing into the wilderness. Along the way, an old man encounters him. The old man says something like: "Son, you're 23 years old. Don't you think you should start thinking about getting a job and making something in this life?" The young man responds: "I think the whole modern notion of a career is a 20th Century invention. I choose not to partake in it."

What an interesting line. It matches my view that corporate power in America increased at the same time Americans convinced themselves that "careers were essential" to individual happiness. The wanderer in "Into the Wild" correctly observed that the meaning of the word "career" fundamentally changed in the mid-20th Century. Before 1950, very few people went to college to prepare for a "career" at a private corporation. Instead, they got a basic education and went to work for small businesses (if they lived in cities) or in agriculture (if they lived in the country). A tiny minority went on to college and entered learned professions.

After 1950, however, more and more people abandoned those "old ways" and began following a new paradigm: Go to college, get a job at a private corporation, make lots of money, buy a home live in the suburbs, raise a family and live in relative comfort until pension and death. This was a new life path in 1950. Yet it took hold very quickly; it completely altered America's social landscape. And as more and more people embraced this lifestyle, America's private corporations assumed their commanding influence in American life. Corporations generated the wealth that propelled this new lifestyle. Without them, it would all fall apart.

Against this background, it should come as no surprise that corporations began wielding more power after 1950 than they did before. As America's overall lifestyle changed, so did its habits. Since 1950, the United States has become a voraciously consumer society. Americans spend more money than they have, and that is just the way corporations (and banks) like it. All the while, they depend on private employment with corporations to sustain the money flow necessary to buy all the wonderful things consumer culture has to offer. It is an endless, spiritually vacuous cycle. At the same time, corporations rake in all the profits. They bombard the airwaves with advertising. They speak all the words. And Americans have listened for about 60 years straight. It is no wonder that corporations have assumed power: They have a captive audience that wants to buy all the things they sell.

But I am not writing about advertising or commercial power today. I am writing about language. To illustrate just how much corporate "culture" has infiltrated American life, consider two words: Recruit and hire.

Today, corporations proudly talk about their "recruiting efforts." In 1920, employers used to say: "Doggone it, Joe, we need to hire someone to replace the cashier who quit last week." Now, they say: "Call up the recruiting agency. We need to recruit someone to assume the junior sales associate position following the previous junior sales associate's withdrawal due to personal pressure." In both instances, the employers want to do the same thing: To find a person to do a job for pay. In 1920, the employer says "hire." In 2009, he says "recruit." Why the change? Shouldn't different words have different meanings?

Of course they should. Strictly viewed, "recruit" and "hire" are not synonyms. They are not the same as "crimson" and "red." They involve fundamentally different concepts. "Recruit," for instance, has a genuinely military connotation. The word stems from the Latin "recrescere," meaning to "grow again." According to Webster, the transitive verb "recruit" means: "1. To raise or strengthen (an army, navy, etc.) by enlisting personnel; 2. To enlist personnel into an army or navy; 3. (a) To enlist (new members), as for a party or organization; (b) To hire or engage the services of a person." Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). The dictionary defines the intransitive verb "recruit" to mean: "To enlist new personnel, especially for a military force." Id.

In this light, what does "recruit" have to do with private employment? A quick look at the dictionary shows that "recruit" has an almost universally military meaning. It involves "enlisting personnel" for military purposes. Only Meaning 3(b) hints that it might involve private employment. In that meaning, we see a link to the old concept "hire." There is a distinction between "hire" and "recruit." The distinction is a military one. Our language delineates between military "regrowth" and private "hiring."

Yet private corporations have co-opted the verb "to recruit." They like to say "recruit" rather than hire. Why? Is private employment a military campaign? Armies recruit when they suffer casualties in battle. Do private corporations fight battles and incur losses? Certainly not. But this example precisely illustrates how private corporations have infiltrated and plundered the English language. "Recruit" no longer has a distinctly military connotation. Now, it is nothing more than "hiring."

On the other hand, corporations have also stolen another military word in order to describe resignations and firing: "Attrition." The military justifies "recruitment" when "attrition" thins out the ranks. Corporations "recruit" when "attrition" results in open job spots. In the military, "attrition" means guys got their heads blown off and need to be replaced. In private corporations, "attrition" means some guy got up from his desk at the insurance company and said: "Fuck you, I'm outta here." He, too, must be replaced. So the corporation "recruits" a replacement.

What about "hiring?" Why is "hire" insufficient for private corporations? In my view, "hiring" much better describes what private corporations do to replenish their work forces than "recruit." "Hire" is a pure English word with Germanic roots. It is related to the Dutch word "huur" and the German "heuern." Both kindred words mean to "rent out" in a commercial setting. They do not involve the military, nor do they involve "regrowth." No, "hiring" is a commercial word, and it has always been a commercial word. It is only fitting that corporations--as the ultimate commercial actors--should use commercial words to describe their activities. The dictionary defines "to hire" as: "1. To get the services of a person or the use of a thing in return for payment; employ or engage; 2. To give the use of a thing or the services of a person in return for payment." Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.).

What could be clearer than that? "Getting someone's services for payment" or "employing" them: That's hiring. That's what corporations do. So why must corporations say "recruit" when they mean "hire?" No matter how intensely corporations might pursue "market success," they do not wage military campaigns and they do not suffer casualties in battle. They have no right to use the specialized word "recruit" to describe their purely commercial quest to obtain people's services for a paycheck. The army "recruits" at the "recruiting station." Corporations "hire" at their "offices." There is a distinction in the language that should remain intact.

In my view, corporations have corrupted the word "recruit" and robbed its unique meaning in English. They have succeeded. They hold much more power than Americans care to admit. After all, corporations represent the pathway to "career" and all the miraculous consumer goods that flow from a career's cumulative paychecks.

Most Americans could care less whether corporations commandeer the English language. They just want the paycheck. They don't care whether they are "recruited" or "hired."

I care. I think deeply about language and its transmutations. It saddens me when powerful interests can change our language at will. But I am not normal.


MaxThrust said...

One of my favorites was a story I heard of a guy in Las Vegas. He got a 'paid companion' while he was there. At least they kept the word paid, though in an episode of Firefly, a futuristic space-drama, they had a whore on board who was simply called a companion, and it was even a respectable position!

As in most male/female relationships the term 'paid' is redundant. Calling her a paid companion is just formalizing upfront a normally informal agreement for trading resources for sex, either short or long-term.

Timoteo said...

I'll never get over the term: "Drug Czar." As paranoid as America has been about communism...who came up with the term CZAR to describe someone in our government?