Written by Noemi Pollack on June 30, 2009.
What’s in a word? Really everything, so take heed…
Those of us writers (especially in PR and marketing) that agonize over every word ever written, understand that the choice of words is a crucial judgment call, for it can cause unwanted ripple effects, twisted misperceptions or can be interpreted in the most unexpected of ways. And then consider how some words have the power to engage, while others can get glazed over by overuse, in particular, words such as exciting or unique, which are no longer exciting or unique.
And then there are those words that have become synonymous with a single person, event or brand, or a series of such, not in the grammatical sense, of course, but by association, which instantly inhibits their use.
And, for me, such a word is ‘evil’.
Now, the main headline of The Wall Street Journal of June 30, used the word ‘evil’ in reference to Madoff’s epic fraud – a direct quote from the judge that presided at Madoff’s trial, US District Court Judge Denny Chin. Not that for a nano second do I think that Madoff’s crime does not fully deserve the 150 year sentence given, but it is the choice of word that stunned, for that very word belongs for evermore – almost exclusively — to the greatest cruelty that has ever been bestowed upon mankind, the Nazi regime and the unspeakable horrors it unleashed. I believe the word ‘evil’ has a specific connotation, in particular since 1945, that is well outside the confines of dictionaries or thesaurus and thus cannot really be used freely as a descriptive word, nor separated from its word association. And since 1945, there were other word associations with ‘evil’, as in Khemer Rouge, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and more.
Madoff caused a horror of another kind, destroying lives in another way, through the disappearance of financial safety nets, causing personal losses of gigantic proportions. Basically by single handedly concentrating on saving his neck, he deprived masses of investors of their life’s savings. But surely there are other descriptive word choices that would separate his actions from the ‘evil’ of horrors of concentration camps, medical atrocities, torture, terrorism and death.
Questions as to when evil is evil or whether there are degrees of evil, have been discussed by theologians over centuries. However, still unresolved to date, we are left with what the word connotes.
I am sure that Judge Chin meant no harm in uttering the word ‘evil’, most likely an emotional reaction to what the court had just witnessed. That said, it did make headlines and for me, therefore, diluted the true ‘evilness’ of the word.
If we scrutinize our politicians as to their choice of words, so should we scrutinize all elected officials…