PORTLAND, ORE. — Shortly after Katrina slammed into New Orleans, a radio announcer described the plight of residents "refugeed" to other areas. Apparently one of the lesser known effects of the storm was its impact on the noun "refugee."
Then a recent article about the electoral reform commission that's been studying problems with the 2004 campaign included this sentence about voter registration: "Democratic activists also said intimidatory tactics had been used against ethnic or racial minorities ..."
In his novel "1984" George Orwell depicted a police state that maintained absolute power through a variety of tactics, including the imposition of a tightly controlled version of English called newspeak. I wonder what Orwell would think about current American language habits that seem to be drifting steadily away from any controlling authority.
I call this carefree verbalization "whateverspeak" (say it like a Valley Girl). People who practice it have no reservations about mangling or ignoring grammar rules and routinely use nonexistent words ("intimidatory") and meaningless terms ("pre-planning").
One manifestation that shows up with annoying regularity is government bureaucrats who have decided it sounds more authoritative to use "task" in place of "assign" as in, "That responsibility has been tasked to a new agency."
I'm willing to give teenagers some slack in this area, since they have a tradition of creating their own unique codes and dialects. My daughter and her friends frequently use "ginormous" to indicate size imaginable only by combining "gigantic" and "enormous."
Maybe it's too late to be worried or annoyed. If spoken and written communication is sliding inexorably toward total destandardization, I should consider leading the trend instead of fighting it. After all, my creationary talents as a vocabulationist are well established, which would make me exactly the sort of person to assume the role of master modificator as the national lexiconic tendencies evolve toward new definitional baselines.
Letting go of our dictionarial approach to sounds and syllables would definitely shift the communicatory framework into a more spontaneously oriented paradigm. Whose alphabet is it, anyway? Speech and text might both benefit from a new approach that treats them as integrational components of a unified field of perceptivity rather than separate constructs in a vocal matrix.
However, as I mentalize the scenario of a society that jettisons strict syntax, proper punctuation, and successful sentence structure, there is a gloominous cloud hovering over the entire horizonal encompassment. It is the specter of a culture that has become stupidized by linguistic laziness, the citizens wandering among themselves trying to decipher the mumblings of mass ignorism.
I don't think my worries are resting on foundational instability. The proliferation of whateverspeak can only lead to negative consequential developments. I just hope they aren't too ginormous.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.