Hated People and Celebrities… along with adjectives, euphemism, and rhetoric

George ClooneyAlthough the Speech Dudes don’t mind hearing such descriptive adjectives are matureseasoned, experienced, or even worldly when applied to themselves, it would be a mistake to think that all these euphemisms for old mean out-of-touch, gaga, or loosing it. In fact, we like to think that being in the same age bracket as George Clooney, Piers Brosnan, Bruce Willis, Sean Connery, and Denzel Washington is not that bad. Mind you, Nick Nolte, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Buscemi are also part of this gang, so perhaps we’re being a little optimistic!

Anyhow, age insecurities aside, it’s no coincidental that the points of reference we use are celebrities because we’re hip enough to know that we live in a celebrity-orientated world, where “being famous” is an actual career choice for more folks under the age of 30 than we’d all like to admit. This doesn’t apply to you, dear reader, because if you’re reading this blog in preference to OK magazine or The Justin Bieber Encyclopedia, the chances are you’re not totally impressed by the Celebrity Culture. But if Johnny Depp were to ask for your cell number…

However, for those who demand proof, which should be all of you, here’s a couple of interesting lines from the very readable and most excellent The Narcissism Epidemic (2009) by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell [1];

In 2006, 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds said that ‘becoming famous’ was an important goal of their generation – nearly five times as many as named ‘becoming more spiritual’ as an important goal. A 2006 poll asked children in Britain to name ‘the very best thing in the world.’ The most popular answer was ‘being a celebrity.’ “Good looks’ and ‘being rich’ rounded out the top three, making for a perfectly narcissistic triumvirate.” (p.93)

Nevertheless, the Speech Dudes enjoy a celebrity train-wreck as much as anyone else (Charlie Sheen, anyone?) and so the release of a new list of The Most Hated People in America is worth commenting on – from a linguistic point of view, of course.

First, let’s shoot the most obvious and largest fish in the barrel: This list in NOT about “people” but “celebrities.” My sister-in-law qualifies as a “most hated person in the world” from a personal perspective, but she is, thankfully, not a celebrity, hence her absence from the list. And by celebrity, we really mean “someone who is famous enough to catch the eyes of the global media networks.” One possible reason for using people over celebrity is that if you check the data [2], people is ten times more frequently used than celebrity, which means the headline will get more “hits” from search engines looking for keywords. This is worth bearing in mind if you’re creating headlines for your blogs. And who said studying corpus linguistics is boring and arcane!

Casey AnthonyNot surprisingly, Casey Anthony heads this year’s list. Now here’s a case that demonstrates perfectly how the Celebrity Culture is a media-based, pruriently biased phenomenon and the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses” for our 21st-century decadent neo-Rome. A women allegedly kills her child, is tried by the courts using the laws of the land, and set free because there is insufficient evidence to find her guilty. So, is she innocent?

Well, as far as the court of public opinion goes – and that’s us, boys and girls – she ISN’T. You see, much as we all use words like justice, democracy, and law, the Celebrity Culture realises that appealing to our Id will always triumph over paying lip service to our Superego. The law says she is innocent but our collective animal instincts would like to see her punished.

The problem is; we don’t like her. We just don’t. Watching the endless TV clips of Anthony made us aware of her non-verbal communications, and we were all irked by her presumed smirks, her indirect eye contact, her apparently dead-pan face. Of course, all these clips were chosen by TV editors to fit into a 5-second video clip for the fast-moving broadcasts that rarely do more than provide filler for ads. From Casey Anthony to Huggies in an eye blink. It also helps that many folks were spoon-fed by Fox’s witch-finder General, Nancy Grace, a women for whom the phrase “Sentence first; verdict afterwards” was prophetically accurate.

The Hated People list is little more than a reflection of how we shape the media, and vice versa, and how “entertainment” has become the measure of what is “worthy” of coverage. You don’t need Wikipedia or a degree in Anthropology to see that the people are on the list because their lifestyles impinge on the base elements of human nature that we all love to hear about: murder, sex, infidelity, greed, vanity. In fact, if you wanted to correlate each celeb with each of the Seven Deadly sins, you could probably do it before finishing a half-empty cup of coffee.

Jon GosselinMeanwhile, it’s somewhat ironic that Jon Gosselin is one the list for two reasons: First, one of the reasons he wanted to leave his family was that he thought that he couldn’t cope with being in the Celebrity Culture! And second, St. Kate’s show, Jon and Kate plus Four Each on the Weekends has been pulled from TLC. It seems that sometimes, escaping from the publicity lens is harder to do than putting on a blood-soaked leather glove. That right, OJ?

And as for Spencer Pratt… Well, we can at least use him to teach a new linguistic term: aptronym: a surname that matches your profession or personality. I’m not sure that being a prat[3] is typically seen as being a career but in this case, we might want to argue in the affirmative. It may seem a little unfair for folks to continually maul the man but this really is like shooting fish in a barrel and he did choose to swim in it in the  first place.

We started this piece with a list of preferred adjectives and we’ll end with a few that should be made use of more often when talking about Celebrity Culture: vapid, fatuous, narcissistic, trivial, and prurient. And that’s not using euphemism[4].

[1] Twenge, J. and Campbell, K.W. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of  Entitlement. New York: Free Press.

[2] If you haven’t yet discovered the online corpora available at Brigham Young University, take a trip to http://corpus.byu.edu and sign up. It’s free and once you start using it to investigate word frequencies it becomes a daily tool.

[3] In British English – or as some of prefer, “real English” – a prat is an idiot or someone who behaves in an idiotic, stupid, or foolish manner. Back in the 16th century, prat was slang for a buttock or ass, and at the beginning of the 20th century is was used to refer to the pocket from which a pick-pocket would pick. The link between an ass-buttock and an ass-idiot seems clear in both British and American Englishes.

[4] For a more scholarly read on the topic of euphemism and taboo words, take a look at Forbidden Words (2006) by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, published by Cambridge University Press. They draw the distinction between euphemism (talking sweetly), dysphemism (talking offensively), and orthophemism (talking neutrally), and they refer to them all collectively as X-phemisms. Three examples of this would be poopshitfaeces, or maybe making-lovefuckingintercourse. The book discusses the links between X-phemisms and human taboos, arguing that the emotional component of taboo words is driven by the limbic system, and that taboo words cannot be censored because they are so closely linked to emotion.


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