As the year 2018 winds down, our nation is in crisis.
You’ve heard that before.
What you haven’t heard is a practical assessment of the cause of this crisis. But that’s about to change.
Here’s the source of our troubles: We have been inflicting intense suffering on some very important words, forcing them to associate with meanings that they abhor.
Let’s demonstrate the value of this assessment by performing a rescue mission for the word “theory,” currently standing out as one of the most unhappy nouns in the United States.
In our times, what we call conspiracy theories reproduce at a rate that would arouse the envy of guppies. And they generate much agitation, doubling as statements invoking alarm and panic, and as statements inviting denunciation and condemnation.
Step back for a moment from the agitation, and the first thing you’ll notice is that the word “theory” is in anguish, trapped in an unbearably awkward position.
By its actual definition, a theory is a proposition that its author wants to test, putting it forward to be proven or disproven.
But in popular usage, the word theory has been coerced and bullied into carrying a meaning that it loathes.
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And now the good news: As we are about to make evident, rescuing mistreated words turns out to be easy—and breathtakingly beneficial.
First, we encourage everyone so inclined to announce a conspiracy theory.
Second, we then respond to each of these declarations by saying, without a trace of agitation, “That’s an interesting theory. Let’s figure out a way to test its accuracy.”
In other words, let’s show some respect for these troubled words, and let’s act on our empathy for their misery. When we restore them to the possession of their actual meaning, the words instantly feel better and fruitless public disputes are averted.
And now the time has come to reveal the theory underlying this prescription of relief for unhappy words and an unhappy nation.
A quarter-century ago, I created a cheerful document called “Limerick’s Rules of Verbal Etiquette.” Here is the premise on which these rules rest: “Words are our friends, and people should not put their friends in awkward positions.”
When I first formulated this premise, my only goal was to design an unexpected approach to convince professors and students to become better writers.
And now it turns out that my premise presents a route to the restoration of sanity to our national conversations.
Fellow citizens, rush to the aid of words in pain. Truth, accuracy, and fact would particularly welcome your help.
And please consider giving a hand to dignity. Rarely placed in an awkward position (or in any position at all), dignity struggles with a distinctive form of vexation, feeling chronically sidelined, snubbed, and dismissed.
And that delivers us to a concluding theory deserving a vigorous test: Giving the word “dignity” the opportunity it yearns for — a chance to serve as our anchorage — could offer a surprisingly effective way to deal with the nation’s current crisis.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.