Jul 8, 2020

Are You an Anti-Semantic? Time to be Outed!

Ranting about word changes, for fun and no profit

By Ed Goldman

Warning: There are some people out there who are dangerous anti-semantics.  Like the ones who think “irregardless” is a fine word, and should be included in our dictionaries. 

I’m the exact opposite. Words are my world. Consequently,  I spend entirely too much time wondering why we pay doctors, dentists and lawyers so much money to “practice,” then allow one of the latter to represent us at a “trial” which also means an “experiment” or a “test.”

Shouldn’t these people stop “practicing, “experimenting” or “testing” by the time we fork over our hard-earned bitcoins to them? I mean, we don’t watch boxing matches to see the contenders “spar.” We don’t go to theatre, concerts or ballets to see people “rehearse.” And we don’t expect movies to consist solely of out-takes (though I’ll admit that some are better than the finished product).   

Even though they don’t always do precisely what I want, I take the meaning of words very seriously. For example, a week or so ago, the city council of Davis began to tinker with the idea of renaming its police department in response to a presumed majority of civilians calling for the “defunding” of police departments. (Now that I think of it, “defunding” is a word deserving of study: I suppose “dis-funding” might sound too close to “dysfunction.”)

For those of you who don’t know, the city of Davis is just across the river and several decades behind Sacramento. Davis thinks it’s still 1970, man. And when it gets its collective head in an uproar over issues of social injustice, I pity the overworked fax machines, T-shirt silk-screeners and oaktag-sign makers. And how about those poor pizza delivery people providing nourishment to activists pulling all-nighters?  

Anyway, the general idea by some people in Davis—whose city council 36 years ago declared the city to be “a nuclear-free zone” and just 22 years ago, passed a law to reduce light pollution at night (in the sky)*—is to rename the cop shop as something like the Department of Community Safety. 

That’s not a bad name. But it’s also what the government of Queensland, which they keep in Australia, used to call its hybrid of the Department of Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, Emergency Management Queensland, the Queensland Corrective Services, and the Queensland Ambulance Service. The new, streamlined name lasted for all of six years. I’m guessing it confused people. They might not have been sure (and here I’m speculating wildly) which button to push for which service when they phoned the after-hours recording:

“G’night, Mate. You’ve reached the Department of Community Safety. If you have a kangaroo that’s accidentally immolated itself, press 1 for the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service. If in the process the ‘roo also immolated your home, press 2 for Emergency Management Queensland. If you want the marsupial arrested, press 3 for Queensland Corrective Services. And if the critter punches you in the eye when you try to have it arrested, press 4 for Queensland Ambulance Service. Or just stay on the line and someone will be with you. No worries, mate.”  

Yes, I know, I know: Why would you ever get an “after-hours” recording if you were in need of emergency help, which most of us rarely need during normal work hours? But you mustn’t look for logic when referencing Australia, a place where they call a water bottle a “hottie,” a Hibachi a “barbie,” a rock-and-roll rave-up a “rage,” a young woman a “Sheila” and flip-flops “thongs.”

If law enforcement in Davis and elsewhere does undergo a name change, what’s going to happen to a favorite summer-camp and military training expression like “police the area”—which means to clean it, not patrol it? 

You can’t order someone to “department-of-community-safety” the story-circle barbecue pit or the wargames bivouac site. By the time the command was given there wouldn’t be enough time left for the kids or soldiers to accomplish the task. Irregardless of how fast they worked.

* For real.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).