Words matter. I’m a student of politics and political movements. Words there can be the difference between a movement living on to bring about real change or fading into obscurity. Remember the sweeping reforms to protect our 401Ks and home values, in the aftermath of poorly regulated collateralized loan obligations, driven by the battle cry Occupy Wall Street?
No, of course you don’t, because no real reforms happened! Judging from changes they initiated, the words Occupy Wall Street weren’t worth the poster board they were printed on.
That’s why I listened with interest to this episode of The Gist podcast. In it, the host Mike Pesca echoed my concern about today’s battle cry, “Defund the Police”:
“I will admit defund the police gives me pause as a phrase, because I’m so silly as to conjure the actual definition of the word defund, which is to take funding away. This leads to a debate with people who say, No, no, no, no! Defund means decrease funding. To which I say, ‘No. Decrease means decrease. Defund means defund.’ Luckily, I have here John McWhorter, who I shall now ask: Who has the better side of this argument?”
Words are hard
You should know that McWhorter is also the host of a podcast (who isn’t these days?). It’s called Lexicon Valley. But more pertinent here, his day job is teaching linguistics and American studies (among other subjects) at Columbia University. Here’s an excerpt of his answer to Mike:
“It’s tough. … Of course, defund is supposed to mean what it means. But then, on the other hand, as a linguist, my mantra is always that the meaning of words always changes.”
“And [you could say] Defund the Police is pragmatic in that there’s drama in it.”
“Defund the police pricks up people’s ears. But then, of course, most of us weren’t aware that you could say defund to mean give less money.
“The problem is simply that to say ‘Decrease the amount of money given to the police’ doesn’t fit on a sign. It doesn’t sound as good. It doesn’t stick in the mind.”
He later employs this apt simile: “[Defund] sounds like you’re taking a silverware drawer and throwing it down the steps and you listen to all that noise and you see all that mess … That’s part of it, I think.”
Then McWhorter gets to the part that concerns me … and the host:
“Defund is challenging in that people are going to hear it as meaning ‘Don’t give the police any money and just start again,’ which is what [only a few] people mean.
“But the problem is figuring out whether a person means that or something more moderate will always take up space that could have been taken up with more substantial discussions. And it kind of throws red meat to the hard right who will enjoy trying to make everybody who is left of them, including the center, seem like they’re idiots.”
Polari to the rescue
Polari is a “mongrel language” you probably haven’t heard of, but you’ve used some of its words and phrases in conversation. Have you called something camp? Polari. Rough trade? Butch? Also Polari.
If you were to triangulate from the themes of those words, you’d conclude this is some sort of gay slang. And you’d be right. And although it came primarily from Italian, it was used in the gay and criminal underworld of England in the last century and earlier, when being gay was criminal.
I first heard one particular Polari word in the early 2000s, as a straight clueless guy who was the exact target audience for the make-overs on the then-new series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I will say, by the way, that I still use some of their fashion and grooming tips today. They showed me the right way to shave my face with a safety razor. Thank you, Carson!
And it was Carson who introduced me to the Polari word zhuzh. If you’re new to it, it’s pronounced zzoosh, and means “tart up,” as in a hair style. And for the following reasons, I recently proposed Zhuzh the Police as a better replacement for the original:
Now hear me out, because I’m dead serious.
If I’m a typical police officer, or even a centrist voter or legislator, “Defund the Police” is worse than inaccurate — it’s naive and incendiary.
As @badfragments pointed out:
When people say “Defund Planned Parenthood” they mean destroy it. So you can bet on “Defund the Police” being taken the wrong way by many. Even though I embrace the significance of the phrase I feel it can be used to hurt the ideals of the cause.
Add new meaning to a word that’s new to most
Here are three ways that Zhuzh The Police is an improvement, and should be adopted today in support of this important political movement:
- As I mentioned in my tweet, it comes from a language that was created in opposition to unfair policing. Gay men in England at the time of its use were singled out by police there in a way similar to the way Black people are oppressed today. So why not use one of their words to call for reform?
- It’s funny to those in the know. And laughter opens the mind and encourages discussion. Of course we don’t want to give police a new hair style! But we do want to improve them in the eyes of most Americans. I can hear the movement leaders now, on the Sunday morning political talk shows: Let’s not defund police, let’s give them a thorough makeover!
- Since zhuzh is a new word to most people, it’s far more malleable. It is free of any negatives because it’s a blank slate. Even McWhorter predicts that defund will never find its way into common dictionaries. (Well, what he said is it will fizzle the way occupy did). But zhuzh could make it there, with a new meaning about a growing, thriving political movement!
What do you think? I’ve turned off my comments here, but would welcome them on social media.