America a Captive Nation: The Subjugation of English

It is in the nature of alien invaders, if they arrive in sufficient numbers, to impose their language on the conquered people, and it is in the nature of ideological revolutions to distort and reshape the language as a tool for imposing their revolution.  Conservatives will immediately bring up George Orwell, but two millennia before Orwell a far more brilliant and genuinely original writer observed:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.

That, of course, was Thucydides on the factional civil war on Corcyra (Corfu).  But, some well-meaning conservative will say, we Americans still speak the language of our ancestors.  Really!  Suppose a time-traveling American from 1850 or even 1930 were to find himself deposited in 2023. He would first be astonished by the domination of slang.  Of course all languages have professional jargons and specialized dialects used by criminals and the lower classes, but in America today one cannot escape slang.  I once asked an academic to be more polite in responding to our website, and he responded with what sounded to me to be a nursery expression: “My bad.”  I had to ask him what it meant.  I should have said something like, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”

A popular list of common slang expressions on the web includes:  pig out, screw up, take a raincheck, jack up prices, drive someone to the wall, ride shotgun, couch potato, party animal, no biggie, bummer, epic fail, hyped, and that sucks (clearly obscene!).   This is before we consider the filth known as urban slang or the GenZ dictionary, which includes: glow up, vibing, slay, stan, sus, cap, ghost, and valid.

GenZ slang is the secret code of losers, but American English, so impoverished in the means of clear and effective expression, is rich in slang, codes, and dialects.  FemSpeak and Ebonics are only the most absurd.  All of them, including the jargon of the so-called social so-called sciences and computer geekspeak, contribute to the disappearance of standard English, the marginalization of the articulate, and the inability of diverse groups of Americans to communicate successfully with each other.

On a more serious level, he would soon discover that most of American speech consists of half-dead metaphors that people do not understand and are therefore free to mix with other half-dead metaphors.  No one can feel anything without riding a roller coaster of emotions or feeling a torrent, have a good time without painting the town red, or hear a joke not prefaced by "Laughter is the best medicine.”  

Businessmen cannot propose a plan that is not a game-changer, does not leverage assets, “take it to the next level.  If the plan is too easy they will be picking low-hanging fruit, and but they should be careful not to boil the ocean.  In any deal both parties inevitably  bring something to the table. If you have ever had the misfortune to attend a retreat conducted by a corporate psychologist or management expert, you will no doubt have performed an exercise in synergism, learned to practice inclusivity, and increase motivation.  These last two were recommended by website ( that claimed to be opposed to corporate jargon!

  Overused metaphors are often introduced by the word “literally,” as in, “Folks, there was literally a sea of faces,” or “The day the pink slips arrived it was literally a blood bath in the office.”  Their ignorance of Latin (and French) means they do not know with any accuracy the meaning of a majority of words in a standard dictionary, and if our visitor were to pick up a recent dictionary he would find it dominated by slang and bad usage.   In general, he would conclude that Americans no long use words to describe reality but only as markers of how they think they are supposed to feel.  

American speakers are reminiscent of the cards in John Searle’s famous thought experiment of the Chinese room.  A man is in a room with two slots.  When you put a numbered card with a Chinese word or expression into the slot, he then takes an English card with the same number and puts it out the slot.  Searle’s point was that so-called artificial intelligence is the man in the room.  Does he speak Chinese?  Do Americans speak English or any intelligible language?   And, if what they say is unintelligible, does not that suggest that they are not specimens of an intelligent life form?

Our visitor would also discover that the American verbal system has been badly mutilated.  The subjunctive, moribund two centuries ago, does not exist, and the past perfect and future tenses have been dropped, making it difficult to express the notion that one thing happened before another.  

My old Greek teacher, Walton Morris, would recite to his students a series of “Morris’s Maxims” on translating a foreign language text.  The First Maxim was: “If you know it, you can say it,” and the second followed from the first: “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it,” and, to forestall the inevitable use of a translation: “If you can say it but cannot not parse the sentence, you have cheated.”  In other words, real knowledge is almost always dependent on the ability not only to express the knowledge in words, but also on having an active grasp of the language.  

If Walton Morris was correct—as all but the fools who profess various postmodern isms would concede—then only a tiny proportion of Americans can be said to know anything, and this applies especially to all the pundits and experts in the press who regularly inform us “You have been doing this wrong all your life.”  And, as we like to say, since “knowledge is power,” this means that Americans are not only hopelessly ignorant but irredeemably powerless.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Wonderfully expressed, painfully true.

    I cringe every day when I open my local newspaper. Clumsy syntax, poor or erroneous word choices, complete incomprehension of the distinctions between less and fewer, disinterested and uninterested and a host of similar words are no longer exceptions but part of our regular diet. Yet I know the day is fast approaching when even that paper goes away forever. The meager advertising supplements that produce the revenue are going to get even more reduced as the largest local food store has announced it will no longer use newspaper ads. The death knell can be heard. I suppose it is fitting that Pat Buchanan is retiring so his columns will disappear anyway. The crosswords are no longer the challenges they once were but are now exercises to elicit one’s knowledge of our degraded pop culture. I could go on, as we all could. At least I won’t have to read the term “laser-focused” each morning. The Zeitgeist has conquered and imposed its will.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    There is a bad which belongs to me. “Generation Z” never really had a chance-but most of the “Millennials” and “Generation X” had a choice. A significant amount of them had grandparents who attempted to speak normally, had decent manners, went to church or were at least reverent towards serious things, and a significant of the grandchildren chose the sloppy attitude ( an absurd amalgamation of tipsy frat boy, California stoner, and farcical “inner-city” imitation) of their peers; to such an extent that this is normal for the children of today. They chose to throw away their inheritance and fentanyl death is showing itself to be the answer.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    If it is true that language is how we understand the world around us, and if what you say about English in America is true, then most Americans cannot understand the world around us. As a nation we cannot see reality and live in delusion.

    I was thinking the other day about how most of us are ignorant of the origins of metaphors we use all the time and that it would be interesting to learn the origins of them, which I have the desire but not the time to do. It would probably be best not to use them at all if we don’t understand them.

    The corporate speak one must endure on the job nowadays is the most annoying of all the jargon. To speak of “leveraging resources” to “drive profit” is silly and void of real meaning.

    Parsing was always a weak point for me in high school. I think they called it “diagramming” by that time and I believe I recall the teacher telling us that what we had to do was simpler than real parsing as it was done in the old days. I only really understood it when trying to parse Latin sentences in Wheelock, but that was a very cursory set of exercises and parsing has remained one of my very weak points. By looking on the Internet Archive one can find a book on the subject for English and of course for Latin and Greek.

    Several years ago I was listening to some podcasts of a radio show which featured Christian Kopff as a guest, and watching several Youtube videos of Kopff delivering talks on education. In two or three of these he mentioned something which I can no longer quote him on but can give the gist of. He said that since our leadership class no longer study the language arts (Latin, Greek, Grammar, Logic Rhetoric), they no longer understand their own language. They also don’t understand language itself, and therefore, how the mind works. Nor do they know history. Because of all this, they can’t truly understand the world around them and therefore will be completely unable to deal with a major challenge should one come along and threaten our civilisation. He may have been even more right than he knew. Just look at the mess they have made with their stupid energy policies over the last several decades followed by sanctions in response to the Ukraine conflict. They are utterly unable to deal with the crisis they have created and in fact are the crisis itself.

  4. JamesD says:

    Mr. Wilson,

    Don’t forget to “lean in” and “circle back.”