My wife and I like playing word games. Scrabble. Words With Friends. One of my favorites is a game we made up. When we have an argument. I say “I’m sorry. You’re right.” And she says, “Don’t forget it, bonehead.” I love that one.
Despite our affection for wordplay, however, I find myself feeling a smidgen sorry for politicos these days because choosing the wrong word in DC has become more perilous than ever. If you refer to some group by a potentially pejorative term, you’d better be ready for protestors at your door…even if you had no idea you were being rude.
A whole list of words and phrases have tipped into the danger zone for being racially, sexually, economically, and/or situationally sensitive: “Anchor babies,” “thugs,” “Illegals,” and “Black Lives Matter” to name a few. And a platoon of candidates have strayed into the minefields; Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Jeb Bush included.
Part of the problem is that the list is evolving, and what is fine today may cause fury tomorrow. For example, in his 2008 campaign Barack Obama called people who did not come to the U.S. through official channels “illegal immigrants.” By 2013, he added the word “undocumented workers” to his lexicon. Now, he refers to the children of people who came here without the proper paperwork as “dreamers.”
See the trouble? Even the most politically correct candidates can wind up being incorrect if you judge by the sturm und drang that follows. (Um, no offense to Germans, btw.)
I’m not fond of this warfare with words. I have no complaint with the causes, but just as some people use specific words to diminish their foes, others are now using shame to cage conversations.
Frankly, I wish people would just stop using words as weapons all around, and instead use them to communicate. But then, there is a word for that: quixotic. And it’s pretty much useless in life, but let me tell you — it’s worth a hell of a lot of points in Scrabble.
Tom Foreman is a CNN correspondent and author of the upcoming book “My Year of Running Dangerously.”