There’s a crisis in our world, exemplified by the use of colossally clumsy terms like “Turkey Crisis” in the global media. And no, I’m not talking about an international political development or a pressing humanitarian disaster off the coast of a far away nation. This is much closer to home, and whether it’s a crisis of culture or the product of either intent or ignorance, I can’t quite decide.
Some background first. News organizations abbreviate, sometimes horribly. They drop verbs, they compress and distort sentences until they’ve wrung almost all the meaning out. It’s in their nature to do so, but the upside is that the results are often entertaining:
- Homicide victims rarely talk to police
- Breathing oxygen linked to staying alive
- Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons
That much I can handle, even enjoy – the happy accidents of deadline-driven typesetting. But, there’s a new and more disturbing trend infecting today’s media outlets like a cancer, and I can’t put my finger on the reason for its sudden metastasis. It is an ugly tumor choking out the beauty of international reporting: reporters and news organizations seem to have forgotten how to use the names of nations, peoples and things.
This shouldn’t be a difficult task to master. Any school kid who has taken a geography class probably understands the difference between turkey and Turkey: little “t” is what you eat on the last Thursday in November, while big “T” is a nation.
By 3rd grade, I had taken it a step beyond big T and little t. I had learned that the people of Turkey are called Turks. And that objects from Turkey are described as being Turkish: taffy, towels, walnuts, baths, even the language: all of it was simply Turkish.
Shortly thereafter, I found that an equally beautiful consistency applied to the things or people of other nations: France/French, Germany/German, Netherlands or Holland/Dutch, Denmark/Danish, Sweden/Swedish, Russia/Russian, Brazil/Brazilian etc. We circled the globe and quickly mastered the major national variations in grade school, around the time that our ages were spawning their second digit.
Even though some of these might not skip off the tip of your tongue (I still can’t spell Portuguese without automated help), you nonetheless get the concept. We all get it. But the press of today seems to have quite clearly not gotten it, or at least to have forgotten it. Witness these headlines inflicted upon us during the past few years:
- Syria War Erupts!
- Egypt Crisis Worsens!
- Japan Earthquake Devastation!
Which lead me to the hypothetical headline that inspired this post: Turkey Crisis!
My only hope is that when the inevitable happens, the calendar is nowhere near late November, because people who actually take the English language seriously may well be paralyzed with confusion. Think about it: Turkey Crisis?
Does this little gem of ambiguity mean that there is an issue along the shores of the Black Sea, or in the frozen foods aisle? If this Turkey Crisis worsens, should I stock up on luxurious cotton towels or frozen poultry before prices rise? Does today’s Turkey Crisis mean that I am doomed to a lousy Thanksgiving, or does it mean that I might not be able to vacation in Istanbul?
This journalistic impotence when the topic turns international might be due to a lack of familiarity: perhaps the reporters in question are simply unaware of words like Turkish, Egyptian, Libyan or Japanese. I’m willing to forgive that, since we all had to learn sometime, and maybe now is their sometime. If we bring the examples closer to home, they might ring truer, so let’s try it with food.
Everyone likes to eat out. Sometimes, my friends and I prefer American cuisine. But not always: maybe we’ll go out for Mexican tonight. But we never go out for Mexico. Replay that in your mind: hey Justin, want some Mexico food? Ouch: it’s almost physically painful to hear. Let’s try another example. We ate Italian last night – we did not eat Italy. I have a big appetite, but seriously?
It’s fun to game out the possibilities: tomorrow, we might get some Greek appetizers, and although they can get greasy, who among us is dumb enough to call it Greece food? Not even a reporter for the New York Times would make a pas quite that faux.
The same principle applies to Chinese: do any of us order China to go? At Crate & Barrel, maybe… but never at the Peking Dragon. Right about now, everyone’s linguistic error detectors are going off like air raid sirens, so I won’t belabor the point.
Let’s take a little test instead. Trust me, you’ll pass it with ease.
- Thailand cuisine or Thai cuisine?
- Swiss cheese or Switzerland cheese?
- BMW: a Germany car?
- A great choice for New Year’s Eve: let’s get some Thai, then tie one on.
- No contest. Even CNN hasn’t gone this far. Yet.
- Like nails on a blackboard: obviously, it’s a German car. At least, when it’s not being made in China (but that’s another story, and no, it’s not a China car, either: ceramic technology isn’t that good yet).
Globalization can be tough, but I’m sure that you scored three for three: anyone who completed 5th grade can earn a gold star in this exam.
So why are the journalists lagging behind the middle-schoolers? Well, they certainly aren’t stupid people. Or poorly travelled. I was perplexed, until this thought came to mind: perhaps their assault on our language isn’t driven by ignorance at all, but is instead completely intentional. Maybe I was merely ignorant of an authoritative justification, a source of contrarian but solid advice, misguided as it is, to justify their unfortunate way with words.
And I found it. After a little searching around, I learned that some schools of journalistic thought actually endorse these antics. Nonetheless, or more accurately, in defiance of the trend, I believe that this assault on our beautiful and graceful tongue should not be tolerated, much less respected. And the fact that the vile advice is directed primarily at journalistic circles, and might therefore be limited in its scope of impact, is actually no excuse at all.
This is because of the fact that, enjoyable as it might be to poke fun at this trend, the misuse is not confined to journalists, it is not being ignored by society at large, and is therefore not really trivial at all – instead, the intentional abuse of the language is accelerating, its application broadening and deepening daily.
I can hear the moans now: why worry about stuff like this? Because as the media speaks, so speaks the nation. Especially the youngest in the nation. Consequently, styles this awful need to be abandoned, forthwith. If we don’t, prepare yourself for insults to the beauty of the English (not England) language like those below:
- Belgium chocolates sell well in China shops
- Chile restaurants offer chili dishes to Peru diners
- Italy wine now popular with Ireland drinkers on Europe holidays
There is no excuse for any of us to sound like an online translator in need of a software update, and for professionals whose living is made with the pen, mangling the elegance that is English when spoken well is a particularly unforgivable sin.
However, mercy abounds, and in matters moral there is no culpability without knowledge, so for those whose excuse is ignorance rather than malice, I have a suggestion. When in doubt, Wiki it:
And for those without such an excuse, I bear no you animosity. Quite the contrary: I think the best remedy might be an evening out.
I’d suggest that you start with a chilly Chile beer at the Ireland pub before trying some Japan sushi for starters. You know the place, near that Hungary restaurant? Since this will be a special evening out, I’m sure you won’t want to eat America or Mexico. Unless you’re really hungry. Later, you might spring for an espresso at the France bistro or a cappuccino at that cozy Italy coffee bar. Who knows? Maybe catch a late performance by that England actor, or a reading by the latest Argentina author.
If you’ve still got an appetite afterwards, allow me to suggest a slice of Greece baklava to cap off your evening. Wherever you end up going, I know that you’ll return safely home because you’re driving a Volvo, that wonderful Sweden car offering Europe style, its interior upholstered in Spain leather and trimmed in (what else but?) Turkey walnut.