The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

Signifiers

Narrative

Wilfred M. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

Academia has a lot to answer for when it comes to the corruption and decay of our language. We all know about the impenetrable prose that has become academia’s stock in trade. But there are certain untoward developments that seem to be attributable to the rise of mass higher education, which has broken down the barrier between academia and public discourse, to the detriment of both. It is no coincidence that the years since World War II, which saw an astonishing rise in college enrollment have also seen a great many academic words and concepts finding their way into everyday speech. This is a process that has continued unabated, and it has nearly always tended to undermine the vigor and directness of our speech.

So now, instead of changing our minds, we undergo a “paradigm shift.” Instead of finding something risky, it has become “problematic.” Instead of a fanciful story being called a fable or a tall tale, it is dubbed “an urban legend.” Instead of identifying one’s intimate partner as something more or less determinate, he or she is one’s “significant other.” Instead of being self-centered, the insufferable young man is “narcissistic.” And one could go on.

Some of these terms are older and more established than others, some are more pretentious than others, but they have in common their academic origins, and the fact that their everyday usage misrepresents their original meaning. Compare, for example, today’s use of “significant other” to its use by the psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan, the man who originated the term, who meant it to refer to the person who directs the primary socialization of a young child. Such technical jargon has a real value when it is confined to the discourse of specialized academic communities. But the flow of such words into our public speech is another matter.

A special case in point is the word narrative. Although a word with a long history, and deep roots in Latin, it has by now become an academic term which has migrated into common speech, bringing hidden freight along with it.

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Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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