Saturday, 24 October 2009

How to ruin a word

It turns out it was Mark Twain who said 'denial ain't just a river in Egypt' (it sounded to me like a Woody Allen line). How true, how true. It also turns out that 'denier ain't just a unit of measurement of linear mass-density of textile fibre' (awful, sorry).

The proliferation of deniers has been noted elsewhere. However, I think the phenomenon needs looking into a bit more. They're all over the place: there are deniers of Aids, global warming (or climate change, if you prefer), recession, evolution, and the grand-daddy of them all, the Holocaust.

There aren't many worse people out there than Holocaust deniers. Paedophiles are more reviled but I can't think of many others. And quite right too, for reasons that are too obvious to recount. It was this connection that flipped denial and denier into the realm of the pejorative. (At least in modern times: St Peter was briefly a Christ-denier).

But then the usage spread and not by happenstance. The Holocaust linkage had already given the words a malign latency. Busy propagandists such as George Monbiot and Richard Dawkins realised it would be a wizard idea to use this to blacken the causes of their opponents (some more and some less deserving of being on the receiving end of this tactic). So, just as 'mother' when said with sufficient vehemence is quite an insult, we now have "denier!!"

Denial has had a mixed press not just in its sense of repudiating something. In its sense of abstinence, it hasn't fared well since the advent of the consumer society; it doesn't sit well with instant gratification. It's even managed to take on connotations of a perverse, almost masochistic refusal to give yourself or others what really should be enjoyed, what is somehow deserved. It hasn't always been like this.

Denial was at the heart of the Protestant Ethic, thought once to have motivated all sort of progressive developments, such as the Industrial Revolution. It was almost the signature of the ratiocinating human being - the ability to forgo pleasure for greater future gain. It was a sign of holiness - self-sacrifice in service of the ineffable.

And now surely anyone with intelligence and sensitivity who's been exposed to the various consumerist slebby excrescences - from Heat to Premier League football to How to Spend It - would have to admit that a bit more positive denial in our culture wouldn't be a bad thing. Never mind the self-indulgences productive of obesity, drug addiction, and alcoholism.

A more self-denying approach to life and the material is going to be forced on many of us soon anyway. We're still in recession, the longest now on record. Whether we want it or not we're going to see a lot of denial in the coming years, of self and others.

But just when we need to lean on an old word like denial with its respectable history and decent references, it's no longer there. Its rather noble sense of abstaining for a higher good, embattled but still recoverable until recently, has been obliterated. Denial, denying and being a denier can no longer conceivably be good things. Those who did this, the lexical vandals who have denied the rather noble connotations of these words, deserve a label: the denial deniers.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, thought provoking. As a skin-flint and a proddy dog I do indeed deny myself some things (and it's made me the man I am today etc etc etc). "Abstinence" shouldn't be a dirty word, but I can't see how one could sell it to the masses these days. How about "Temperance"??

Gaw said...

Temperance? Too Sally Army. It's a euphemism for no booze at all, nothing, zero, nada, zilch. An impossible sell - to me at any rate.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I take your point, and I'm a above-average alcohol consumer myself so wouldn't warm to the Sally Army stance, but "temperence" originally means "habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions" and such like, so I didn't think it was such a bad emphemism for "denial".

Gaw said...

Perhaps it's a Welsh thing: when I hear the word I visualise it on a banner pinned onto an otherwise bare little chapel. It is a nice-sounding word though.

Sean said...

I like the new leftish version of the word, when they use it, you know you have won.

After they a the biggest deniers of all, they rightly point out pseudo-science especially when someone who is using it is on the right, but modern leftism is pure pseudo-science t start with, the irony.

A young earnest student type came up to me shopping this morning in Sheffield centre.

"do you want to sign our petion to stop the fascist bnp appearing on TV" No I replied, the shocked idiot replied "dont you understand the evil that the Nazis caused?" Yes I replied, and I reached for my wallet, here is a picture of my grandfather at Belsen.

The astonishment across the guys face, that I would not sign is petition, and he could not launch into the usual I am a better man than you crap, you could have driven a bus through his mouth, it was that wide.

worm said...

'Denier' is the trendy new way of calling somebody 'fascist'. Exactly as Sean says, it's use is a handy sign of lack of intelligence

Incidentally - and Im not making this up -the word verification I have to type in for this post is 'warmists'


Gaw said...

Sean and Worm: I don't think it always means the person using the word 'denier' is wrong. I don't think creationism holds water, for example. But I do object to the holier-than-thou, you're-going-to-hell-and-I'm-not connotation.

I also think it's in really bad taste. As you say Sean, people bandying around the Holocaust leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It seems a bit unbalanced to use the crime of 6 million Jews being murdered to try to win a debating point concerning whether Darwin was right.

Worm: Haven't you realised we're being watched? Sometimes they try to send us messages as a form of control or just to mess with our minds. Eyes forward and press on, brother.