A proprietary perspective

Certain useful words and expressions have been kidnapped by special-interest groups and removed from their role in our language

STEWART MacLEOD June 5 1995

A proprietary perspective

Certain useful words and expressions have been kidnapped by special-interest groups and removed from their role in our language

STEWART MacLEOD June 5 1995

A proprietary perspective


Certain useful words and expressions have been kidnapped by special-interest groups and removed from their role in our language


As a matter of interest, ever wonder how certain institutions, individuals and even illnesses—to name a few—have managed to lay exclusive claim to valuable adjectives? For all practical purposes, they have taken them out of general circulation.

Not clear? Well, for those of us in the wordmarketing trade, it’s become a problem of pesky proportions, even more so than the electronic disasters of computerland that bedevil us daily. You know about that. One wrong key, bang, another day’s work vaporized.

No, what’s worse by far is this kidnapping of certain otherwise useful words and expressions by special-interest groups. From firsthand experience, even cancer victims are into the act.

Look at that messy gun-control business. And why, for heaven’s sake, have gun owners managed to hijack such a perfectly generaluse expression as “law-abiding,” or, if needing an alternative, “responsible”? When was the last time any pro-gun group spoke out without referring to itself as law-abiding?

Soon, the way things are going, there will a Canadian Law-Abiding Association, our own gentle version of the U.S. National Rifle Association.

Now, when any other organization comes forward with a batch of lobbying, they look like plundering plagiarizers if they claim to be, say, “law-abiding farm implement dealers” or “responsible cummerbund collectors.” They are forced to settle for something like “freedom-loving tractor owners” or “antianarchist cummerbund collectors.”

Lord knows when it started, but it clearly goes back to the seizure, by the Roman Catholic Church, of “devout,” a word once in the domain of all believers. Granted, it’s used less these days, but it’s far from the point where your run-of-the-mill Protestant can make the claim. They must

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment.

still settle for “adherent,” “member” or a lowly “she attended----”

As for journalists, although it’s no matter of pride, we have sole ownership of the uninspiring “jaded”—as in “even jaded journalists were shocked.” That’s about as gory as it gets.

Ever hear of a jaded chiropractor? A jaded tuba player?

You’ll notice that Tories and Liberals have never been credited with a “conscience.” Since 1961, that’s been the private possession of the New Democrats. Remember them? Sure, the Tories—remember them?— can trot out extremists from “Red Tory” to “rednecks,” but no conscience in between. Oddly, the official Tory color is blue.

On the national scene, “proud” is to be used before “Canadian.” A Quebecer can be a “strident” nationalist or an “ardent" federalist. Ardent Canadians don’t exist.

Take “hardened.” That’s used exclusively for criminals with two or more crimes under their belt. Can’t be used in any other profession, not even evangelists with a dozen or more saves under their belts. Even professional wrestlers, with 2,000 body slams under their belts, never harden. Get mean, maybe, but not hardened.

And once assigned, words never expire. As they say, once you get a reputation as an early riser, you can sleep until noon the rest of your life.

As for Scotsmen, who dress in ridiculous skirts and dance and carouse all night while wailing like banshees, they will always be exclusively “dour.” Since it’s so ludicrously inappropriate, one can only wonder whether "dour,” perhaps in ancient Gaelic, once referred to unpaid bar bills.

Consider “character,” a once useful noun that supported any number of descriptive adjectives, including “bad” and “good.” It now stands alone, the exclusive property of millionaire hockey players who don’t fold in the face of a one-goal deficit. "They showed character out there,” says the admiring coach, savoring another exclusive “moral victory.”

Here, while critical of captured descriptives, we’ll openly admit to accepting, albeit briefly, a personal benefit from them. Jaded journalists are expected to reveal potential conflicts of interest.

Assuming you’re old enough for a daily browsing of obituaries—as opposed to birth announcements—you’re aware that victims of cancer, and they alone, are credited with brave, courageous or valiant battles. Never has anyone succumbed following “a valiant battle against diverticulitis”? Painful as the devil, but no awards.

So you can readily understand how it felt when, believing it was merely non-heroic pneumonia—which doesn’t even qualify you for get-well cards—I was given the exhilarating news. Yes indeed, the dour doctor, possibly a Swede in Scottish drag, had taken a voyage of discovery inside me and found a hitherto unknown island of cancer.

Great. This meant that, at the very worst, I would someday become valiant—even though, unfortunately, these awards are given only posthumously. That’s a definite downside. But, even in death, no other disease, no matter how cruel or debilitating, offers the same badge of valor.

Simply lying there and contemplating the inevitable heroism status did marvels for morale. It even eliminated some daytime whimpering.

Not complaining, mind you, but there’s no heroism in surviving. Being “lucky” is not exactly the Victoria Cross of the bedded. Furthermore, they take away your bravery pills.

Now, when the inevitable eventually comes, there’s absolutely no guarantee of heroism. It could be a no-name brand killer, deserving of no better obit than “after a brief illness.” And there has never been a courageous battle against that.

With diminished chances of medical awards, perhaps the best bet is to try collapsing over the boards during the third period of a hockey game, while carrying a rifle. That should, at the very least, represent a display of lawabiding character.

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.