On Writing: Gods of Death

I’m on a mission.


Years ago, I was discussing killer whales with a well-meaning environmentalist who suggested that the term “killer whale” was too pejorative. He insisted that we should stop calling them that and call them by their formal name instead: orca.

I had to inform him that, in fact, the name orca comes from the Latin name, Orcus, the Roman God of Death. I offered the counter suggestion that we just start calling them Gods of Death.

“Oh look, kids: there are some Gods of Death in the Channel!”

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is the way to go. Gods of Death. I’m not sure how to proceed at this point, but, Juneau, you’re going to have to help me.

First of all we need a referendum. I’ll talk to Marc Wheeler at Coppa about putting out three tip jars, one marked orcas, one killer whales, and one Gods of Death. We’ll see which one the tips tip the scales in favor of.

Then we need to start correcting tourists whenever they mention orcas or killer whales.

“Killer what? Oh, you mean the Gods of Death? That’s what they’re called up here in Alaska. Gods of Death. No, that’s right, that’s what we call them. Gods of Death.”

And then the tourists will return to their homes with tales of their Alaskan adventure on Franklin Street and let all their friends and families know that they saw some Gods of Death in Gastineau Canal.

This is risky business, trying to change what we call things. A few years back, when NOAA first opened the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point, people turned its initials into an acronym, TSMRI, and (supplying the missing vowels) began calling it TESMARIE.

Tesmarie? Oh please.

I have problems with saying aloud anything that sounds stupid to my refined auditory sensibilities, like “and/or” and/or “Donald Trump.” So I went on another one of my linguistic missions to cut the crap and just call the research facility “The Ted.” The Ted. Think about it. It makes the place sound dignified, like the Ted Talks, or like its namesake, Senator Stevens, or like the most famous American Teds, Kennedy and Roosevelt.

But Tesmarie? Please.

So I began always referring to the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute as The Ted. I let some of my colleagues in on my plan and tried to get them to do the same. But their connection with reality isn’t quite as elastic as mine, and I don’t think they made the necessary commitment to “The Ted.”

Sad to say, my efforts came to naught. I’m afraid we’re stuck with Tesmarie, because that’s just how most people say it now, and because—and this is the point of this little fantasia—language rarely changes by design.

Back in the 20th century, some hotshot linguists with utopian fantasies even worse than my own tried to invent a universal language, Esperanto—from the Latin word for “hope”—in the hope that a common language might bring the world together in peace, love, and bad ideas.

They should have named it after the Latin word for delusional. All their efforts went nowhere, of course, because no one knew how to say, “Did you put the coffee on?” or “Where’s the toilet paper?” or “I told you to stop doing that!” in Esperanto.

Language rarely changes by design. It changes, for better or worse, by how we use it in everyday conversation, in everyday life, trying to get our work done, have some fun, and spend as little time as possible dealing with all the little irksome realities that get in our way. As the Bible says, it’s hard to kick against the pricks. (More puritanical modern translators, frightened by modern English’s anatomical homonym, translate the line from Acts as “Thou shalt not kick against the goads.” As Samuel Beckett says, there are always more pricks than kicks.)

Language changes the way rivers do. You can’t tell a river how to flow; all you can do is learn to swim and try your best to stay afloat. And move your house when the river gets too big for its banks.

Michelle adds that language is like the evolutionary concept of punctuated equilibrium: sometimes there’s a sea change—like the 15th century’s Great Vowel Shift, or when a popular writer contributes a new term to our lingua franca (like Shakespeare’s “sea change”), or when some new technology adds idioms to the language. WTF? LOL. :-D

We’re stuck with doing the best we can here on the Tower of Babble. To the chagrin of my refined linguistic sensibilities, it looks like we’re stuck with Tesmarie. And it looks like I’m going to have to wander the wide earth lonely in my quest to call killer whales by their real name.

But I’ll keep trying. I’ll keep talking, keep talking it up. Because appropriately enough, that’s how language changes. By word of mouth.

And sometimes you can see Gods of Death from The Ted.

• Jim Hale can be contacted at jimhale821@gmail.com or through his website, https://www.jimhalewriting.com.


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