The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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The misuse of words

It seems to me that many of us consistently misuse descriptive terms, never realizing the implications thereof. What I mean specifically is this: far too often we confuse what we are, what we have, and what we do. This is a very serious matter, but I will use a silly example both as a means of avoiding the controversial and because a brilliant man I once knew told me that it is the silly examples that are easiest to grasp and remember.

I am human. I have blond hair. I read quite regularly. I cannot have humanity or act human; there is no way I could be blond or act blond; and it would be nonsensical to call myself a reader. The caveat to that last statement is that I, personally, can call myself a writer because writing is something I do persistently and even somewhat occupationally. However, I am not a writer simply because I have written something, and not everyone who writes is a writer.

Now, to edge toward the controversial (or shall I say social), I have white skin (if you call a certain creamy tan color “white”), but I am by no means white. To say that I am white would mean something other than to say that my skin is white (even though it really isn’t). Of course, as we all know, this was a major issue in our country’s past. Unfortunately, I cannot see that we have moved away from the blurred distinction of having a certain color skin and being a certain color. It goes without saying that one cannot act a color, but I have heard such phrases used in conversation.

Now, let us move to the legal. It is illegal to steal, but it is not illegal to be a thief. If it were illegal to be a thief (that is to say, if it were illegal to have stolen something – what we commonly mean by calling someone a “thief”) everyone who has ever been caught stealing would have to be sentenced to life in prison or be on permanent parole. That is why I would like to suggest that a person cannot be a thief simply by their having stolen something. I suppose someone could be a thief if theft were their occupation, just as I said I can be a writer because I earn a nominal income by writing. But that is not how we typically use the word “thief.”

Now, let us take a look at the religious: I can sin, but I cannot be a sinner. That is to say, sin is an act just like reading, and if I cannot be a reader how can I be a sinner? Once again, I suppose it makes sense for religious texts to refer to “sinners” as those who perpetually sin (or maybe flippantly sin) as opposed to those who only sin more or less inadvertently or are so-called “repentant sinners,” but it seems obvious that the term “sinner” should not be applied lightly. To expound on this point a bit, I have heard religious leaders speak of a person “having” sin [in their life]. While this makes sense on a certain level, I think it fails my litmus test since it does not make sense that I could have sin any more than I could have humanity.

The implications for this are huge, and this distinction needs to be made in many disciplines and circumstances. It seems to me that this distinction, if honestly accepted, could solve about half of the world’s problems (just as a rough estimate).

To fully emphasize my point, think about how weird it would be to say that I have thief or have steal. You cannot have a verb just as you cannot act a noun or be an adjective. To summarize all of this, there are certain things I can be, there are other things I can have, and there are still other things I can do, but those things are not interchangeable. The longer we neglect to distinguish between these things and continue to misuse these descriptive terms in our speech and language, the longer we will be forced to live with the consequences.

Matt Brumit is a senior humaities major. He can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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