Todd Walton: Words, Words, Words

Anderson Valley

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

We are awash in words. Our thoughts are words. We talk with words, we read words, we listen to words. We depend on words to define our reality. And when we hear the same pronouncement often enough, most of us come to believe the pronouncement is fact even if the only proof is repetition.

Shortly after the World Trade Center came tumbling down, a comprehensive national poll revealed that less than one per cent of the American population believed Sadaam Hussein had anything to do with that event. Then the administration of George Bush, speaking through their corporate media, embarked on an all-day-every-day-all-channel campaign of repetition stating briefly and with no corroborating evidence that Sadaam was joined at the hip with Osama Bin Laden and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Six months and ten million repetitions later, a new poll revealed that seventy-nine per cent of the American people believed Sadaam was directly involved in bringing down the twin towers. Repetition of an unfounded lie became general belief.

For a month now this same corporate media has been calling the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico a leak. I think they have intentionally chosen the word leak so we will associate this unprecedented disaster with a dripping faucet. What do you think of when you hear the word leak? Certainly not millions and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the ocean for days and weeks and months on end. Yet even after movies began to appear on television and on the Internet showing the oil gushing from a massive broken pipe, commentators continued to use the word leak. As of this writing, that catastrophic gusher is still being called a leak, with only a few of the more daring journalists using the word spill, which is also inaccurate and inadequate.

Do our overlords think we’re stupid? You bet they do. You may recall some years ago when there used to be occasional news of the war that has never ended in Iraq, commentators and journalists referred to Iraqis killed by American forces as insurgents; a brilliant choice of words for the purposes of propaganda, the word evoking visions of faceless murders surging out of shadowy alleyways, no? The dictionary defines an insurgent as one who participates in a revolt, otherwise known as a rebel. The soldiers of the Confederacy during the American Civil War were called rebels. But Iraqis battling the invaders of their homeland, as well as noncombatant Iraqis who died in the onslaught, were not honored as rebels or even called Iraqis, but were dehumanized by the term insurgents. Call me naïve, but I believe had the word Iraqis been used in place of the word insurgents, the American public, as stupefied as we are, would have been compelled through those millions of repetitions of the truth (as opposed to the lie) to take action to end the illegal war.

Please note that the word insurgents is now being used to describe citizens of Afghanistan killed by American and NATO invaders; and in a further twist of truth, insurgent is being used interchangeably with the word Taliban, which I predict will soon become a common noun spelled with a lower case t. Talk about reframing reality.

I think it is extremely important to be aware of the intentional misuse of single words in the context of the larger tracts of misinformation that constitute most of our news today. My current favorite misused word is socialism. The dictionary definition of socialism is: a political and economic theory of social organization based on collective ownership and democratic management of the essential means for the production and distribution of goods. A public utility, a worker-owned business, a well-regulated oil industry, a free healthcare system, public education, a system of freeways as opposed to toll roads, these are all facets of socialism. But to hear the pundits bandy the word, they might as well be talking about insurgence.

A lawyer friend regaled me with what she learned at a seminar on how to lead witnesses. A video of a moving car striking a parked car was shown to thirty people. Out of earshot of each other, ten of these witnesses were asked to estimate how fast the car was going when it bumped the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it collided with the parked car. Ten were asked how fast the car was going when it smashed into the parked car. The word Bump generally elicited a guess of ten miles per hour, Collide produced guesses of twenty miles per hour, and Smash inspired guesses upward of thirty miles per hour. Same video, different verbs.

Leak. Spill. Gusher.

Insurgent. Iraqi. Patriot.

Contractor. Mercenary. Hired killer.

For decades, my grandmother Goody fought valiantly against the misuse of the word hopefully. Someone would say, “Hopefully it will rain tomorrow,” and Goody would respond, “Hopefully is an adverb. Which verb in your sentence were you hoping to modify?”


“Can it be said that rain falls hopefully? Perhaps you meant to say I am hopeful that it will rain tomorrow.”

Or another person might say, “Hopefully I’ll get the job.”

“Hopefully?” Goody would echo with undisguised irony in her voice. “I fail to see which verb you are attempting to modify?”


“Did you mean to say I hope to get the job, or did you mean to say Should good fortune shine on me I will get the job?”

A year before she died, Goody said to me, “I fear I have lost the battle, but comfort myself that I have at least saved you.”

“I will do my best to carry on the good fight,” I said, smiling hopefully, yet knowing I didn’t stand a chance against the gushers of semi-literate insurgents arising from the ruptured pipes of our once pretty good socialist system of education.

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books won the 2010 Indie Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction, the 2009 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Bronze Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for Fiction.


Great article! Few of us analyze the word choices the press makes, especially in its headlines and lead paragraphs. Compare these two: “Seventeen die in Israeli attack,” and Palestinian bombs kill three Israelis, including a child, at a popular restaurant.” Where would our sympathies naturally lie–with the 17 unknown people in an unknown place who had the misfortune to die just as the Israelis attacked, or an innocent child enjoying an outing at a popular spot?

As for “hopefully,” I’ve finally left the straight and narrow and become one of those socialist insurgents. I used to replace the word with some painfully labored “it-is-to-be-hoped” construction, until I realized we use this shortcut with lots of other words and nobody raises an eyebrow. Mercifully, my fellow grammar Nazis don’t complain about those many other adverbial shortcuts, or if they do, frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn. Hopefully you’ll see it my way.

    Well said, Bonnie. I love the expression adverbial shortcuts. Language is ever morphing. I recently had a conversation with two teens for whom the word “awesome” was apparently synonymous with “oh”.

Words. You got me hooked, Todd, and you are correct, we are awash in words. More than we need most of the time.
Certainly the Iraq war was sold to us with a swarm of lying words. My first thought at the time, when they trumpeted weapons of mass destruction, was what is the definition of WMD. Nobody knew. I didn’t find one person who could define WMD. I knew then it was bullshit. But the war mongers and the media made the words seem real.
But even back in the Vietnam “war” years the media wasn’t much better. I remember learning how to read between the lines of the newspapers because even then they were simply parroting the politicians about the so-called domino theory, communist threat…etc., etc.
An influence about words at that time for me (I read his book) was S. I. Hayakawa. Ironically, he quickly became an enemy of free speech and antiwar activists when he was at San Francisco State.
Language in Thought and Action was the book,
Hayakawa: “We live in an environment shaped and largely created by … mass-circulation newspapers and magazines which are given to reflecting, in a shocking number of cases, the weird prejudices and obsessions of their publishers and owners; (and by) radio and television programs … almost completely dominated by commercial motives; (and by) public-relations counsels who are simply highly paid craftsmen in the art of manipulating and reshaping our semantic environment in ways favorable to their clients….”
He had that correct… Although it is even worse now, with the media owned by even fewer corporations.
An example of the media at the time:
“Student and faculty anti-war demonstrations periodically closed San Francisco State. Impatient with student radicals, Hayakawa used a firm hand in shutting down the protests. The right to free speech, he believed, is balanced against the rights of others to pursue their lives and studies without disruption.” The San Francisco Chronicle.
He knew his words and used them well enough to eventually become a US Senator, by calling and inferring that protests were anarchy. What in the world could be wrong with a firm hand?
Words don’t have much meaning without the context, he said in his book, once again accurate (the dripping faucet}.
In reality the original Boston tea party rebels or radicals were insurgents, and, as I like to note, along with the Native Americans who were fighting to keep their lands as promised by the white invaders who thought they had “discovered” and owned the land.
In reality the North Vietnamese were not insurgents, They were patriots protecting their homeland.
Now it is those who disagree with the Corporate Order who become insurgents.
Then look at the words conservative and liberal in politricks (sp). Nobody knows what the words mean any more. Which is why the American rage at being ripped off by corporations and Wall Street is easily manipulated to the whacko side of tea baggers who don’t realize that the original American patriots (insurgents) were protesting against an English company’s huge monopoly of tea. Protesting corporate control, so to speak.
“The Radicals were afraid Americans might accept the lower tea prices, which would mean they also accepted the duties (taxation without representation), and put many of the founding fathers out of the business of smuggling tea…. On behalf of John Hancock & other known smugglers, Sam Adams & the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of Tea worth 9,659 pounds sterling & six shillings into Boston harbor “– from About North Georgia.
As you say, with repetition and, as Hayakawa says, “…manipulating and reshaping our semantic environment”.
Not many realize it was the Republican administrations that have raised taxes (Reagan) and are liberal spenders (Reagan, Bush and Bush).
In a business, protecting your assets is basic conservatism. Those self -appointed conservatives didn’t try to protect anything except their own rhetoric, reshaping that semantic environment with repetition.
A true conservative would include the land, the people and the environment as assets.
And clearly, one of the finest, cleanest wordsmiths of our time is Wendell Berry, who is quite conservative, often called a Luddite by some self -described conservatives, when he describes the necessity of living in balance with the land. Hell, I’m probably conservative.
Then finally from the novel by Leslie Marmon Silko “Ceremony” : …the medicine man says this: “But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.” The word he chose to express fragile was filled with a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spiderwebs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filament of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human…”
What a beautiful set of words.
Leslie Marmon Silko once again renews my faith in words.

Michael Laybourn