Guest Opinion: What’s in a word? Almost any word with power, especially these days, has the potential to offend


Recently a copy editor had a question about the word schizoid.

It was used in connection with a public official being all over the map on restaurant closures during COVID-19.

Was this the best word to use? Probably not.

Was it being used in its literal sense? No.

Was it a word readers would understand in that context? Probably so.


You could argue about all of that.

But the objection was none of that.

The objection was: The word could be offensive to some.

I want to suggest that the risk of offense is not the best reason not to use a word.

In some contexts, like an op-ed page, it might be the best reason to use a word.

Almost any word with power, especially these days, has the potential to offend.

But where would Mark Twain or Lenny Bruce or Martin Luther King Jr. be without words of power?

A collection of words without power — an assemblage sanitized in behalf of correctness left or right or simply neutralized to avoid offense — is likely to be pretty useless. Such an assemblage just takes up valuable space on a page or precious oxygen in a room.


We need to be able to argue about words to be able to a) be clear about what we are actually discussing, b) define our cultural norms and choices, c) occasionally move our society forward.

Let’s talk about the word “riot.”

According to the American left, there is no such thing. I have personally been told: You are to say demonstrations. You may not say riots.

But they are not the same thing are they?

The March on the Pentagon of 1967 or the Poor People Marches in 1968 were demonstrations.

What happened, a few weeks ago, when people burned police cars, police stations and broke the windows of businesses and looted those businesses, those were riots.

Have there been demonstrations in Portland and Seattle? Yes.

Have there also been riots? Yes.


And when rioters try to burn the federal courthouses in those two cities, they are not engaged in demonstrations. They are engaged in an assault on federal property and the rule of law itself.

We need to be able to say that.

George Orwell was perhaps the most famous and astute observer of language imperialism: He who controls the language has essential control over the norms and values of society — and maybe even over what we perceive as reality and truth. George Carlin plowed this field in his way. (“How is it possible to have a civil war?”)

We need to insist on honesty and plainness of language and speech to establish, first, agreed-upon reality. That’s a common ground necessary to the function of a society both open and tolerant.

Remember “terminate with extreme prejudice” during the Vietnam era? That meant to kill.

Just as to “terminate the pregnancy” means to end a life.

No one ever said that clear language and a clear mind make for an easy mind. Truth does not come with that guarantee. But the purpose of language is not to obscure life. It is to help us see it more clearly.

Let’s talk about the word “patriot.”


It used to be said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

But that is false patriotism — the patriotism of bluster and not service.

And in my time it has meant the demagoguery of fear mongering and division. In the 1960s the George Wallaces and Spiro Agnews of the world held that anyone who disagreed with them hated America.

We are back to that today: If you see the world differently than me, you “hate America.” The president actually said that about the speaker of the House, something I never imagined I would witness in my lifetime.

The left says if you don’t see it exactly their way you are stupid, probably toothless, and should be canceled.

The right says you hate the country.

So, if you demonstrate for justice you hate America?

Maybe if you riot or call July 4 a white nationalist holiday you don’t understand America. Maybe you have not yet learned to love it enough. I fear that many young people lack deep understanding and love for the country.


But if you love justice, you love the idea of, and will eventually love the reality of, the USA.

Let’s bury this “hate America” canard once and for all. Let’s stop judging each other’s hearts.

Let’s look for the helpers and teachers.

John Lewis taught us how to love America. So did Dr. King. So did the soldier who went to Vietnam for you when you got some kind of deferment. So did the soldier who went to Afghanistan for you because we have no draft in America but a “volunteer Army” in which the poor fight our wars for us because they cannot afford not to — they are not able to acquire and cannot pay off $100,000 or $200,000 in student debt.

A friend wrote me recently to tell me he is volunteering to be a leader in the “Dialogue For Change” movement — in which people of different classes, races and ideological tribes sit down together to share their worldviews and search for common cause. He said this kind of structured dialogue (and there are several models now cropping up) is the only way forward.

In this time and place, in which one is simply not allowed to say Black lives and blue lives matter or in which we talk about white privilege but never the responsibility that privilege implies (see the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers), I agree with him and I salute him.

Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (

©2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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