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24 February, 2010


I am becoming increasingly troubled by the careless use of "figures of speech" in our daily communications.  Not that "figures of speech" are anything new, the Christian Bible itself being sprinkled throughout with early examples of such imaginative turns of phrase.

More and more today when people say or write "a figure of speech", they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact and, as such, risk the danger of appearing to be belittling or demeaning -- even rude.  However, genuine "figures of speech" are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write.  I like nothing better than to use "figures of speech" in my writing as means of self-expression -- sometimes colorful, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek, sometimes with humor, and always to give emphasis.

My problem has its roots in forms of "figures of speech" known as tapeinosis and  dysphemism that often lead to misinterpretation and have potential to be quite offensive.  Generally we are talking here about the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.  We have examples in our  history of racial, gender and religious relations where insulting references are made out of ignorance.  I am often bothered by forced political correctness, but one thing the movement has done is make society aware of "figures of speech" that are offensive and hurtful to certain people and groups.

Current breeding grounds for troublesome "figures of speech" are Internet chat rooms and Facebook site exchanges between teenagers, in particular.  Each generation has its own form of "Teenspeak", harmless and innocent for the most part; but I have noticed a disturbing trend lately to the use of the aforementioned terms of tapeinosis and dysphemism with associated damaging ramifications.

Two young sports fanatics in the 18-year age bracket, engaged in a Facebook exchange over the much-publicized Canada/USA Olympics hockey game a few days ago.  The one, obviously a Team Canada fan, lamented the outcome of the game.  In response, the other who was strongly pro-USA and gloating over his prediction of an American upset, replied:  "I told you so, m----r f----r."  I detest those two (blank) words, used in association, so much that I would never repeat them in print let alone any place else, but I trust the picture is clear enough.

I could not resist the temptation to take the young Team USA supporter to task for the "insensitive" name he had called his friend, stating that it offended me and I was sure that it would offend everyone who read the comment, including his own mother.  I suggested that in the future he think twice about making rude comments that have potential to offend and in turn reflect poorly on his character.  In a followup note to me he explained that he had in fact talked to his mother about the issue and she understood that he was "only using a figure of speech" and that he did not intend disrespect for anyone's mother.  While he played the "figure of speech" card in downplaying his perhaps innocent lack of discretion, I hope that he did learn a lesson and that he will think twice in the future.  If the compulsion to good-naturedly dis his friend is that great, perhaps next time he might choose at least to drop the parental half of the distasteful expression.  

Meantime, God bless the young man's supportive, overly-tolerant mother.  Even now, I hate to think of what my mother's reaction would have been under such circumstances.  Big athlete aside, my mother brought me into the world and she was fully capable of taking me out, trust me.  No figure of speech, intended, simply a statement of fact for which I was frequently reminded.

I am privy to a number of other Facebook sites administered by teenagers, and in general I enjoy their banter.  Quite honestly, it helps me understand what they are thinking and feeling in an ever-changing, complex society.  I am the first to subscribe to the theory that "boys will be boys" and "girls will be girls", but I sense a degree of tolerance that did not exist in my formative years.  Young people have to understand that it is not okay to say certain things, that words can be harmful and that "figures of speech" can be extremely offensive and easily misinterpreted.  The old adage: "Think before you speak!" would not at all be out of place here. 

The odd reminder, too, will never go amiss. 

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