Lumps, Bumps & Meditation

October 2002

Rarely do we encounter anything of interest in the letters section of the local Oakland Tribune. But our eyes were drawn to a letter in the June 19 edition, titled, “They’re Perverting Our Language,” from one Michael Stearns of Oakland.

Stearns takes exception to a term that appeared in a May 28 Tribune article on urban traffic blight. The article lauds the installation on certain residential streets in nearby Fremont, Calif., of specially designed speed bumps — “speed lumps,” as they are otherwise known — which have gaps in them that allow emergency vehicles to pass over them without slowing down. Or, as the article’s author calls them, “traffic-calming devices.” It was this obfuscation, used repeatedly in the article, that exercised Stearns’s ire.

Not only does it sound ridiculous, but the use of the term “traffic-calming devices” alters one’s understanding of the function of speed lumps. Whereas the function of speed lumps is to reduce the danger of speeding vehicles, the function of “traffic-calming devices” is to soothe the high-strung motorist. Residential safety is out, relaxation is in. Next, Stearns quips, we’ll be calling traffic lights “meditation moments.”

Word-bending of this type has run rampant: Used cars are now “pre-owned,” rappers and pop stars are “artists,” pornography is “adult entertainment,” and abortion is a “health care need.” Certainly you, dear reader, could have no trouble coming up with your own examples. The effects of this linguistic re-ordering of priorities, as Stearns declares, are far-reaching: “Ever the long id of Freud reaches into the psyche of modern man, rendering common sense impotent, language corrupted and public dialogue tongue-tied by psychobabble pap.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves! Although this is not a phenomenon limited to the print media, Stearns takes the Tribune writers and editors to task: “As professional wordsmiths of the language, isn’t it part of the newspaper’s mission to cut through the cant of policy wonks and muzzy-mouthed public officials in order to call a spade a spade?” Just so. Meditate on that, Mr. Editor!


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



New Oxford Notes: October 2002

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!


©