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Jeff Byers: Words We Choose are Sometimes Puzzling

by on May 05, 2012 6:00 AM

Mark Twain once wrote that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”

This is just one of many reasons Mark Twain is my hoagie – er, I mean submarine – uh, I mean hero – hero is the word I meant to use.

Words, and the way we use them, have always been fascinating to me.

I’m always amazed when kids wanting to get into radio or journalism don’t write good. It just don’t speak well of the future generations.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” goes the childhood saying. But in fact, words can often sting even more than a physical attack.

A child being told he or she is a failure can be devastating. Bullying usually uses words to enhance the physical abuse, and sometimes it is just words that can lead to severe depression and other problems.

When I was taking journalism classes at Penn State in the 1980s, we were taught to always use “alleged” when talking about crimes that hadn’t gone to trial. But in the Jerry Sandusky case, many in the media referred to the individuals making the accusations as victims.

While they said Jerry Sandusky was an alleged sexual abuser of children, they referred to those children as victims. Well, if they are victims of the crime then by definition Sandusky would have to be guilty of the alleged crimes.

Yet, referring to the children as “accusers” seems to ascribe a doubt to the veracity of the claims rather than just an open question. They are alleged victims, at least legally until and unless the allegations are proven and a perpetrator is convicted.

We see word games being played all the time now. Mount Nittany Medical Center (the hospital) forced Nittany Urgent Care to change its name for a supposed fear that the similar names would lead to great confusion among the masses trying to get to the hospital (known as the Mount Nittany Medical Center).

Somehow, people have figured out the difference between the Nittany Lion Inn and the Mount Nittany Inn, though. And we seem to differentiate between Nittany Beverage and Nittany Winery just fine - though after a few Nittany drinks, either place will do just fine. A Nittany hangover by any other name hurts just the same.

Everyone wants to put a positive spin on their position, so you are either pro-choice or pro-life while the other side, those nare-do-wells, is anti-choice or anti-life.

I have always been a pro-good stuff, anti-bad stuff kind of guy, but that’s just how I roll. I think people need to take a stand and I like to set an example.

Recently, a headline in the Centre Daily Times claimed Michael Mann and others were “confronting” climate change deniers. This “confrontation” involved a group of like-minded individuals explaining why they agreed with each other.

When I was a kid, a “confrontation” involved a face-to-face meeting, but apparently that has changed. And even the headline was misleading. There is anyone, anywhere who denies there isn’t climate change. There always has been a changing climate and in all likelihood always will be. The “deniers” are simply questioning the alleged role of man in these changes. But the planet has already been deemed a victim, thus there must a perpetrator.

I’m always amused when we get the weather forecasts. I always feel like we get some insight into the mood of the meteorologist. If the forecaster is in a good mood, I think we get a “mostly sunny” forecast. If the forecaster is upset about something, we get a “partly cloudy” forecast. And, of course, there is always “a chance of rain.”

Well, that’s great but there’s also “a chance” that I’ll get to sleep with a supermodel and “a chance” that I’ll turn down a free beer, but it’s the likelihood of these chances that we’re more interested in. (for the record, I’m partly believing that a supermodel will go home with me and mostly believing that I’ll accept that free beer).

I love the Kentucky Derby because of the names and the significance of the words with them. Horses seem to bring out plenty of great creativity.

This year, we have “I’ll Have Another” (and no, I was not partly or mostly involved in naming that horse), “Daddy Long Legs,” “Union Rags” and “Daddy Nose Best.”

“Just words” have ruined relationships, careers and lives.

Of course, some words are just dangerous. The n-word and the f-word rarely lead to big promotions and congratulatory notes.

Some words seem to be improperly used. Can an athlete who stops off for a year of college and attends only a handful of classes really be called a student-athlete? Can any groin pull truly be called “minor?”

But these days we are questioning words that would appear to be properly used. “Illegal immigrants” don’t want to be known as “illegal” even though they aren’t here legally.

Sometimes, I wonder if we even appreciate what words mean.

Mark Sherburne was fired and Penn State administrators, who had previously promised a new era of openness, said they couldn’t discuss the firing because, as acting athletic director Dave Joyner said: “Our policies are we don’t discuss HR issues.”

Yet the Board of Trustees had little problem explaining and then explaining again the “HR issues” surrounding the firing of Joe Paterno. Apparently, the definitions of not discussing HR issues and of openness vary more greatly than many might have imagined.

Perhaps I just a need to talk to a Nittany Know It All to have the allegedly partly understood explanations mostly detailed so that I can deny my Mount Nittany-sized hangover from the whole situation. Or perhaps I’ll just have a mint julep and settle in to watch “Daddy Nose Best.”

Besides, now that we have survived all of the turmoil of the past year, what are the chances that a lightning bug will strike twice?

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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