So What?

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT. Aerialist Nik Wallenda battled brisk winds and thick mist Friday to make history, becoming the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

Yes, he did it! So what? Was there ever any question that this ill-conceived and extravagantly expensive ($1.3 USD million) stunt would be successful? This morning’s headlines scream:

Wallenda makes history with Niagara Falls tightrope walk

Like millions of others, I watched it. Except for the photography of the Falls, it was a yawn from start to finish. There were the sycophantic reporters, trying valiantly to fill the dead air with clichés and truisms that might, just might, add some relevance and meaning to the irrelevant and meaningless event; his doting father speaking words of wisdom to coach his son across; Wallenda answering inane questions between bouts of mumbled prayer; the loving family; even the immigration officers asking the same questions they ask everyone crossing the border.

I know, I am sounding like a curmudgeon, a muggle.  In a world so filled with challenge and tragedy, we need distraction and inspiration. We also need common sense and the application of that courage and inspiration, to say nothing of technical expertise and financial resources, to solving them.

I was also a history teacher. I resent the debasement of that word. What was historic about this stunt? It is in the same category as miraculous when someone is spared by lucky chance in an accident or recovers from illness with the assistance of the best medical technology the world has ever known.

So, as usual, I went digging. Just what is history, historic, historical?  I found lots of answers, none of which gave the least bit of assistance in figuring out what made this “historic” event historical!

HISTORY (noun)   The noun HISTORY has 5 senses:

1. the aggregate of past events
2. the continuum of events occurring in succession leading from the past to the present and even into the future
3. a record or narrative description of past events
4. the discipline that records and interprets past events involving human beings
5. all that is remembered of the past as preserved in writing; a body of knowledge

HISTORICAL (adjective)   The adjective HISTORICAL has 4 senses:

1. of or relating to the study of history
2. having once lived or existed or taken place in the real world as distinct from being legendary
3. belonging to the past; of what is important or famous in the past
4. used of the study of a phenomenon (especially language) as it changes through time

Wikipedia has a very long article about HISTORY, and divides it into many subsections and categories.

Fascinating, yes, but disappointing also: Wallenda’s stunt does not fit into any of them!

There can be no clear thinking without clear and undistorted understanding of language. This misuse of terms like historic and  miraculous and tragic have moved beyond metaphor.

Read Geoge Orwell on Politics and the English Language.

Read Lakoff and Johnson on Metaphors We Live By.

Wikipedia also has a detailed treatment of Newspeak as used by Orwell in 1984. Here is the explanation. Here is the list of Newspeak words.

Preserving our sense of what is true and meaningful, what is important, what words mean when we speak them… all of this has great historical value. But its achievement in this age when the media, our prime source of information hypes every event and panders to the masses, will be miraculous. Failure to do so will, in my humble opinion, be tragic.

And the summer of historic hysteria over extravagant yet trivial ego driven “achievement” is only beginning. The Queen’s diamond jubilee is, thankfully, behind us, but we still have the Olympics ahead!

It is likely to be a difficult time for curmudgeons and muggles who value clear thinking and careful use of language!

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