“Excuse me.” “No problem.” A cautionary tale about language

25 Nov

My wife and I hosted a dinner party for six friends. It was a long, unhurried evening of engrossing conversations, better-than-average wines and food.

Though our get-togethers are infrequent, our familiarity engenders verbal jousts and wicked ripostes, liberally seasoned with terms of endearment.

About halfway through the meal and eight bottles of wine, one of our guests looked at me and said, “You are your own worst enemy.”  Silence. Here was a non sequitur if ever there was one. Puzzled, I looked at him, but  he didn’t elaborate, and the party buzz resumed,

Next day,I began ruminating upon the previous evening.  “Isn’t everyone their own worst enemy?” At the moment I was too comfortable to analyze myself, so I began  applying this ‘old saw’ to some historic figures.

For instance. If anyone in the history of the world made trouble for himself,wouldn’t he be  Jesus Christ? Almost everything he said was contrary to the traditions of his people, and their  rulers. They didn’t appreciate Christ  walking around, particularly on water, calling himself the Son of God or worse, throwing the money lenders out of the Temple. And he’s thought of as one of the good guys.

What about Alexander the Great? He conquered most of the known world while still in his 20s and was intent on conquering more, but, ignoring the plight of his army and advice from his generals, he pressed on, thus destroying his army and himself at age 32 without achieving his goals. Then there was Hannibal who crossed the Alps, won all the battles and lost the war. Cato proclaimed “Delenda est Carthago” and indeed it came to pass, totally and unmercifully.1

Then Caesar, Napoleon, Patton and MacArthur. Those are some of the crème de la crème of A Personality types. And politicians? None of us has to think long or hard to remember those worst enemies. And the clergy. And the presidents and CEOs of drug companies, insurance companies, automobile companies, banks, investment firms, and the list goes on.

There are also our media personalities, those 24/7 talking heads who seem to be empowered or ignorant enough to put everything into the fewest words, flogging only the most shocking stories. Interviewers on television and radio ask their guests questions which are promptly ignored, or replied to in such garbled syntax, their meaning is impossible to uncover. Yet they’re never called to task. If they were, they might not come back.

And let’s not forget the world of advertising. everywhere, their vexing non sequiturs assault us. “Voted best car in its class, in initial value”, “Improved”, “Taking it to the next level”,  “Be all you can be”, “Ignorance is Bliss”.  Our language is in danger of becoming meaningless by favouring meaninglessness.  Perhaps the greatest danger is that we’ll stop listening–to everything

So what about us? You and me? We haven’t slaughtered thousands of innocents, made back-room deals that sent armies of young people to death and maiming. We haven’t stolen money or elections and we haven’t destroyed oceans with oil spills. I do a fairly good job of managing my faults, and for the most part I’m satisfied with myself. Which means if I’m my own worst enemy, I’m doing OK.


Posted by on November 25, 2010 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques


2 responses to ““Excuse me.” “No problem.” A cautionary tale about language

  1. Bill Cahn

    November 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, said it best:
    “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  2. Garry Kvistad

    November 30, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Without some good wine, I wouldn’t be able to say this any better. OK, even with good wine.


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