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Inappropriate remarks elicit endless apologies

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including The Confident Writer, a grammar-based college textbook. 

In Kurt Vonnegut's satirical short story, "Harrison Bergeron," everyone will be equal, "every which way." An amendment to the Constitution ensures equality for all. 

If someone is intelligent, the Handicapper General's agents make the intelligent wear deafening earphones, thus rendering the person unable to concentrate or think clearly. If someone is good looking, the individual must wear a mask, and if the citizen is stronger or faster than anyone else, the person is forced to wear weights. 

Weights come in various packages. Even language has weight. 

Used skillfully, language can persuade citizens to believe false statements. Artfully written speeches, therefore, can help politicians reach their objectives, even when the objectives are unachievable. Today, there's a movement toward "social equality," a phrase that makes us feel warm and fuzzy all over. We want everyone to be successful and to be equal "every which way." But there's a problem. Social equality is an impossible goal, and those of us observing the obsession to make everyone equal wonder how far our elected officials are willing to go to achieve an unattainable end. 

Of course, we are not all equal, despite the oft-repeated mantra that we are all created equal. Some are born into wealthy families; others are born into poverty-stricken circumstances. Some are born with an innate ability to grasp ideas quickly; others are not. The weight of language bears down on us, and we follow the leader by repeating ridiculous euphemisms.

As a result, many precise words have been swept under the rug of rhetoric and replaced with vague, less harsh words, lest we hurt someone's feelings. Because of impractical replacements, communications have become blurred. For example, the words "problem" and "offensive" have been banished from our lexicon. 

The exclusion of "problem" implies we have no problems because we have replaced our "problems" with "issues." Issue has become as ubiquitous as iPhones and the thumbers who use them. Recently, Barbara Bush had a respiratory issue. Actually, she had a respiratory problem. Later, we were told she had pneumonia, and that is a problem — not an issue. We can no longer use a word that suggests something needs a solution. We can debate issues and never find solutions. Just observe our elected officials in Washington, and you'll quickly grasp how issues are discussed on and on with nary a solution in sight. 

When the word "problem" is used, it is at once negated. 

"Thank you for the gift, Santa." 

"No problem," says Santa. 

See what I mean? There was no problem. 

"You're welcome" has been replaced with "No problem." 

Researching words online can be misleading. Beware of instant experts offering advice on the Internet. If you Google "issue versus problem," you'll find contradictory definitions. Here are the first definitions, which are correct insofar as they are explained: "The word ‘problem' is used with an intention to solve it. An issue is used in the sense of controversy."

Here are the contradictory — and incorrect — definitions: "When you have an issue, you generally can readily come up with the solution. A problem, on the other hand, is not something that you can solve without forethought, and even a certain amount of guesswork."

I suggest you use a reliable online dictionary or an old-fashioned hard-copy dictionary.  Here are my hard-copy Webster's definitions of "issue": issue (n.) "exit, a going out, flowing out," … "discharge of blood or other fluid from the body" … "sense of offspring" … "outcome of an action" … "legal sense of point in question at the conclusion of the presentation by both parties in a suit" … "action of sending into publication or circulation" … (v.) "to supply (someone with something)."

In the preceding definitions, I saw nothing about a problem. An issue can be publically debated or we can read an issue of a magazine or we can watch something issue from a wound. You get the idea, but a problem needs a solution or an answer. Ask any mathematician. "Problem" and "issue" are not synonymous. 

Add "offensive" to the list of words we dare not use. "Inappropriate" has replaced "offensive" and has moved into our vocabulary with a vengeance. What's more, Americans who make inappropriate comments aimed at stereotypical groups will never be forgiven, despite tearful apologies for making offensive remarks.  One pseudo-intellect on television said, "We just don't tolerate that kind of thing anymore."  He's right. We're quickly becoming an intolerant nation — intolerant of fatty foods, intolerant of large portions of food and intolerant of precise words if they are too harsh for a populace that's becoming ever more sensitive.

Ending on a lighter note, I said to a friend with a sense of humor, "There's a difference between ‘dissatisfied' and ‘unsatisfied.'

Smiling sheepishly, she said. "I don't care." 

My friends keep me grounded.

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