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Weis: Red, White, Blue - And Pink

06/26/12 7:55AM By Russ Weis
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(Host) As we prepare to commemorate the adoption of our nation's Declaration of Independence, English teacher and commentator Russ Weis has some thoughts on the importance of words, as well as the importance of preserving our democracy.

(Weiss) We English teachers can be a nitpicky bunch. And I admit that I'm no exception. I mean, incorrect word usage just drives me crazy. There are, of course, worse vices, but I agree with Mark Twain, who once famously said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is... the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." And as the barbecue season arrives, I'm struck by just how crucial the terms we use can be.

Here's a case in point: I have a bone to pick with the phrase "lean, finely-textured beef," when speaking about the mechanically-processed meat product more commonly referred to in recent headlines as "pink slime." This substance contains much fat, as well as fragments of bone, sinew, and bloody effluvia. The whole concoction is disinfected with ammonia in order to render it suitable for human consumption - at least according to the claims of those who produce it.

Anyway, so-called pink slime has been used in the ground beef of nearly three quarters of our nation's supermarkets. Until lately, that is. That's because once the additive's colorful nickname began to be widely used, many stores announced they would discontinue carrying products containing it. And as of this month, all but three states have refused to buy any of it for their school cafeterias.

On another food front, a group of Vermonters has just filed a truth-in-labeling lawsuit regarding words such as "synthetic" and "genetically-modified." One of the defendants is a syrup producer who may think we're all saps when it comes to claiming a product is "all natural." But now it's up to our slow-as-molasses legal system to reach a palatable verdict on this one.

Imprecise word usage is of course not just limited to the world of food. One of my pet peeves is when someone uses the word "that" instead of "who" when writing about a person. You know, "My cousin that loves maple syrup..." - that sort of thing. This minor error pales in comparison to its converse, though, which has started cropping up lately. For instance, I heard a reference the other day to a "Bank who cares." Last time I checked, a bank is not a person...or is it? After all, we do live in the era of Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling equating corporate spending with free speech, something that's allowed for ever-greater amounts of money to flood our electoral process.

This controversial decision has set off large sparks, and in fact Vermont's own Senator Sanders has recently introduced a Constitutional amendment to overturn it. Which seems fitting this time of year, when we're celebrating our nation's founding principles.

So as I fire up the grill for the red, white, and blue holiday, I'll skip the pink, thanks. But I will engage in frank discussions - using the proper words of course - about ways to help revive our flagging democracy. Success on that front would be a cause for fireworks indeed.


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