The New Bad Words

Posted Oct. 05, 2010, at 5:41 p.m.

We all know the usual bad words — curses, scatological terms and sexual references. Now there’s a new class of bad words — ordinary, useful terms that some politicians and talk show hosts have deliberately corrupted into epithets. Saying any one of these is like waving a red flag at a bull.

Here are a few:

Liberalism, defined in the dictionary as “a political philosophy based on the belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” Nothing wrong with that, but liberalism has been so thoroughly denounced as evil and socialistic that even many Democrats avoid calling themselves liberals. Moderate Republicans wouldn’t dream of it, even though they come close to the old definition.

Stimulus, the perfectly good word for the federal grants and loans that kept the 2008 financial crisis from going on to a complete collapse and that are gradually helping recovery. Same for bailouts, especially TARP, the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that saved banks, insurance and auto companies from failing. The latest word is that TARP may even show a profit. But the new wordsmiths have driven it into disuse.

Entitlement. Literally, it’s the state of having a legal right to something. Current examples are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, all properly enacted by Congress and generally valued and trusted by most Americans. But the new language-definers, including those who worry about budget deficits above all else, have branded those public services as “entitlements,” by which they mean unjustified and undeserved government handouts.

Immigration. We are all immigrants here except for the Native Americans. Immigration and the great melting pot that melded most of us together are what made the United States what it is today. Newcomers supply much of the scientific and financial energy that keeps us going, aside from doing jobs that earlier arrivals won’t take.

Our welcoming tradition was expressed in a poem by Emma Lazarus, engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903. It says the statue cries with silent lips: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp … Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Historians say the poem established Miss Liberty as the unofficial greeter of immigrants. Yet politicians have played on fear and anxiety to make immigration one more bad word.

Finally, freedom and liberty. The tea party movement has hijacked them as if they are the only ones to honor these basic principles.

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