Fields Speaks on Language

Barbara J. Fields '68 said the English language has been corrupted by the metaphoric use of business and sports jargon, in the opening lecture of the W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture series entitled "Humane Letters: The Art and Duty of the Word."

Fields, professor of history at Columbia University, will speak today and Wednesday in lectures she dedicated to Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglas.

Speaking before a crowd of roughly 100, Fields based her lecture on passages and headlines taken from The New York Times and other periodicals, nothing that the news media has borrowed expressions such as "downsize, downside, wakeup call, put on hold, upside, net worth, players" that have been appropriated by the media and the political realm until the words lose their meaning.

"George Orwell compared the degradation of our language to the progression of a drunk," Fields said. "The slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts," she added.

When the metaphors of the business and sports world are used to discuss the real problems of daily existence, discussion becomes trivialized and confused, Fields said.


She described a photo of a scene in Russia in which a well- dressed woman in a fur coat stood before a freezing old woman.

The photo's caption read: "Success has downside in Russia, where many like the old woman pictured are suffering."

Fields attacked the careless use of the word "downside," which trivial- ized the plight of the suffering woman by comparing it to the poor performance of a stock in the market.

The use of the term "downside" implies that it is "natural and proper to purchase success for some with the misery of others," Fields said, calling for individuals to express themselves in their own words rather than in past metaphors.

Fields said the overuse of such metaphors has resulted in an "anesthetization" of the American public to the extent that we are no longer surprised to hear words such as "net worth" used to describe the human condition.

Fields said the terrible connotations of such metaphors cling to the images they describe "like the smell of skunk on the fur of a dog."

In another example of the trespassing of sports and business terms, Fields Criticized Superior Court Judge Lance Ito for a remark made to jurors when dismissing them before the testimony of Detective Mark Furman.

Ito, Fields said, told jurors he knew they were "not happy campers" but that their removal form the court room was necessary.

"The phrase 'happy camper's came to the judge's mind [because] it is just what we expect jurors to be," she said.

Fields called for a reevaluation of the figurative language we use when communicating our thoughts to others.

For example, she recalled a passage from a new report, which read, "The governor will be a major player in the presidential sweepstakes."

"If politicians, their aids and people active in politics are players then what does that make citizens?" she asked. "Spectators."

She said the misuse of these terms leads to a polarizes society, with "players on one side and spectators on the other.