Ritualized Language Can Be Inaccurate and Annoying

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Rituals are things people do in a more or less consistent matter, often to the extent that the manner of doing is more important, or at least, more persistent, than any possible original reason for doing the thing. Ritualized behaviors are all around us, even in highly modern settings like medicine. As a possibly apocryphal example, I will refer to the story of the oven roast. Grandma had the best recipe for a roast beef, and passed it on to daughters, not by writing it down, but rather, by showing how to roast the beef, and the daughters wrote it down. That recipe was passed on, in written form, to grand daughters, and one day one of the grand daughters roasted the beef for the whole extended family for Sunday dinner. One of the younger folk marveled at the great roast beef, and someone else noted that it was grandma’s recipe.

“But what makes it so good, better than when I cook it,” an in-law said.

“I’m not sure. Maybe it is cutting the end of the roast off before putting it in the oven?” said the granddaughter who had done the roasting that Sunday.

“Yeah, grandma,” said the other granddaughter, causing grandma to sort of wake up and pay attention for a moment. “Why does cutting the end of the beef off before roasting it make it taste so good?”

After a few minutes of mental processing, Grandma told them, “You don’t have to cut the end of the roast off. I just did that back in the old days because our roasting pan was too small. Got a bigger pan, don’t do that no more,” and went back to sleep.

Ritualized language is where a phrase or term is used in a certain context, then becomes commonly used in a certain context, then the term or phrase starts to eat other terms or phrases and becomes more widely used to the extent that it is not really linguistically or definitionally correct anymore, but is still used. I suspect the word “nominal” came to mean “normal” because it became ritualized in a certain context then spread. It is often the ugly words that spread this way, maybe because they have no other way to become widely used.

There was no “active shooter” yesterday. There can only be an “active shooter” right now. The term “active shooter” means there is a person with a gun in their hand and they are pulling the trigger, or just did, and likely will again. It does not mean that a person shot a gun at some time in the past.

So, the phrase “There is an active shooter at Walmart” means, to a police officer, that when you get to the Walmart you have your own gun out, vest on, and you sneak around the corners and are prepared to duck, and you have backup. Or whatever. The next day, one can say “there was a shooting at Walmart,” or “there was a person shooting at a gun at Walmart.” Technically you can say there as an “active shooter situation” at Walmart but then, you would be guilty of uttering pure ugly language. Leave the term “active shooter” alone for what it was created. It is a present tense phrase.

But what kind of mistake is that, to use the term “active shooter” in a phrase like “there was an active shooter” when you really should have said “there was a shooter.” Besides bad usage, it is an example of ritualized langauge. The term “active shooter” is used enough in our day to day parlance, and is association with strong emotion (in this case fear or stress), so it gets stuck to the inside of our skulls, near where the words come out, and when the utterance “there was a shooter” is on its way to your mouth, “active shooter” jumps onto those words, beats them up, and takes their place.

An equally egregious, or even worse, example of ritualized language pertaining to gunfire is adding the word “situation” to the sentence, like this one from a report in The Hill a few weeks back:

At 4:22 a.m. on Sunday, an officer near the woman’s home heard gunfire and 911 calls were received reporting an active shooter situation.

This reminds me of a story my friend Bob used to tell, back in the early post Vietnam days. He was a Green Beret in the mountains somewhere in or near Vietnam with the CIA, when the enemy started to shell their position. They dived under a table in the small dwelling they were hanging out in. After a few minutes the shelling had stopped, and the CIA agent said, “This looks like a get out from under the table situation.” In modern American parlance, the term “situation” is added to “active shooter” unnecessarily, ugily, and unhelpfully. When we refer to a past event, and remove “active” since it no longer is, we would get “there was a situation in which a person was shooting.” That is a situation up with which we readers of news items should not put.

Shelter in place is another term that has become embedded in the sticky parts of our heads, becoming ritualized language, and used incorrectly fairly often. “Stay where you are” is often said as “shelter in place” when you are being asked not so much to shelter (like squatting in the bathtub or under the stairs in the basement). Don’t go over there and don’t come over here. Just stay there. Have a snack or watch some TV, but stay there. Technically “shelter in place” means to seek safety within the building you already are in. Staying where you are may be quite different.

A very recent example happened at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. There was a bomb threat and people were told to “shelter in place.” What kind of sheltering do you do in a building that is about to blow up? No kind of sheltering. You evacuate the building that is about to blow up. But if there are people in nearby buildings that you would rather not have wandering around and possibly going to the potentially exploding building, you tell all those people to stay put. A “shelter in place” order may be the convenient way to tell them that, if you have such a thing built into your system, which I guarantee the military does. But they are not really sheltering in place, they are staying put. Nobody had to squat in the bathtub or hide under the stairs. Other examples:

Shelter in place was also a term used in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shelter-in-place order for Georgia until April 13

Governor Orders ‘Shelter In Place’ For Lauderdale as Virus Affects 76 Counties

This is sheltering in a way, but a long way from hiding during an active shooter situation. As it were.

Dog Whistle. A dog whistle is a phrase or term someone uses that sounds like one thing to most people, and if you look it up in the dictionary that will be the meaning, but to a subset of people means something different (but related). If you get trained in “race-class narrative” communication, you will learn that part of the process of making positive change is to identify the racist dog whistles politicians or Fox News commentators and the like use, then you call them out to point out the racism. So when someone like Tucker Carlson mentions that a crime wave (that may or may not have ever happened) originated in an inner city, he is explicitly blaming it on black people even though he does not mention black people. The term “inner city” is almost always a dog whistle meaning African Americans.

I’ve seen the term “dog whistle” being used to simply mean a term or phrase is racist. That is the term “dog whistle” being ritualized, being linked with a different meaning than originally. This is an example of how ritualized language can not only be bad writing (in this case, if the term becomes hackneyed) and the definition expanding (to mean any racist term or phrase even if it is explicit and not hidden to some). It is also an example of how a term being ritualized can ruin it. Dog whistle was a great term. If it gets ritualized and diluted in this matter, it won’t be. This is why can can’t have nice phrases.

I recently saw a tweet that showed a picture of a person using the hand signal for White Power. The tweet said “Racist dog whistle?” No, using a hand signal for white power is probably not a dog whistle in October 2021. It might have been five years ago when nobody knew what it was. Not any more. That is an example of a dog whistle suddenly making a lot of noise. It is just a regular whistle. This is not an example of ritualized language, but it might be an example of the process of a term becoming ritualized.

How about this? An immigration policy designed to not let immigrants enter a country, and at the same time, kill or mame as many of them as possible, to scare others away. That was recently referred to as a dog whistle (on Twitter) but it is nothing like subtle, indirect, or interpreted differently by different groups of people. Here, “dog whistle” simply means “bad thing.” Or a politician says “Islam is barbaric,” and somebody calls that a dog whistle. Nope. Another tweeter uses the term “dog whistle” to deride a person making very direct insulting remarks about Canada. Again, “dog whistle” as “being a jerk.” Also not a dog whistle: six injection hypodermics arranged as a swastika.

I’ve started collecting examples of ritualized language. Maybe you can help. Submit possible examples below in the comments.

A ritualized term or phrase is one that is commonly used to mean a certain thing, but where the use of that specific phrasing is pushed into the rhetoric at the expense of either accuracy or good phrasing. Usually, as noted, the phrase came into widespread use under conditions that make people pay attention. Aphorisms may sometimes be examples, but usually not. Filler words are probably not good examples, but they may be ritualized.

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