I’m at a Loss for Words (Or How Our Language Gets Watered Down)

A few days ago I heard about Domino’s Artisan Pizzas, maybe I’m late on this train but they look really good. They have an Italian Pepper & Sausage Pizza, a Tuscan Veggie and Salami Pizza, and a Spinach and Feta Pizza, just to name a few. They truly look delicious, but I really wonder about the use of the term “artisan.” First off, you can’t have an “Artisan Pizza,” an artisan is person who is devoted to a trade or handicraft, often making items in limited quantities using traditional methods. I’m pretty sure that these pizza’s aren’t making themselves, they are produced by an “artisan” (if that…) but the pizzas are certainly not artisans. That is just using the word incorrectly. Maybe it would be better to call them artisanal pizzas. Okay lets call them that. Now we have to ask ourselves are they really “artisanal pizzas?” I don’t think so. “Artisanal” has become a buzzword used to gain consumers. We have artisanal cheese from Kraft, artisanal beers from Budweiser, and now we have artisanal pizza from Dominos. Artisanal this, artisanal that; everything these days is “artisanal.” This either means that these multimillion dollar corporations have completely changed the way they produce their products or the word artisanal no longer means “an item created by someone who is devoted to a trade or handicraft, often making these items in limited quantities using traditional methods.”

Domino's Artisan Pizza

Here is what is going on… “artisanal” now means delicious or fancy. In advertisement it no longer means what it used to mean. The definition is watered down. Artisanal pizza = fancy pizza. Artisanal pizza = delicious pizza with interesting toppings. Artisanal pizza in no way refers to the way the pizza was crafted. Thus “artisanal” has lost its meaning and has been replaced with a wide range of ambiguous adjectives. Here is the problem:

The watered down use of “artisanal” is a symptom of America’s shrinking vocabulary.

Our vocabulary is shrinking, and we are becoming more and more imprecise. Many of our words now cover a large range of meanings. Consider for instance the word “love.” I love pizza, I love my fiancé, I love books, I love the color of my carpet, I love my dog, God loves me. All these uses of the word love all have very nuanced differences, but instead of having words that represent these different nuances, we use one catchall word. So here is the real problem:

We are at a loss for words…. Our vocabulary is shrinking.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this in an essay titled “The Death of Words” which can be found in the September 1944 issue of the literary magazine The Spectator. He says that there are words which were now insulting which are now complimentary, like “democrat.” The word once had a definable sense, but now it is “merely a noise of vague approval.” His best example is the use of the word “gentleman.”

This was once a term which defined a social or heraldic fact. The question whether Snooks was a gentleman was almost as soluble as the question whether he was a barrister or a Master of Arts. The same question, asked forty years ago (when it was asked very often), admitted of no solution. The word has become merely eulogistic, and the qualities on which the eulogy was based varied from moment to moment even in the mind of the same speaker. This is one of the ways in which words die.

The same can be said of the words “abstract” or “concrete.” Abstract has come to mean “vague, shadowy, and unsubstantial;” it has become a word of reproach. If someone calls me an abstract thinker they probably think I have my head up in the clouds and have lost touch with reality. So abstract has lost its precise meaning and has developed a vague derogatory meaning. The converse could be said of the word “concrete.” It has come to refer to something that is “clearly defined and practicable”; it has become a word of praise. If I am called a practical person it means that I have my head upon my shoulders, and I am an effective person. The word has gained moral weight, whereas it was never meant to offer a critique of the person it is being used to describe. The list of these kinds of words goes on and on. Modern no longer has a chronological sense but instead it has come to mean something good or efficient. Progressive is better than traditionalMedieval no longer refers to something belonging to the medieval period, rather it means something barbarous or outdated. Lewis’ list of words goes on and on.

In our day it seems as though we are at a loss for words. Words that once had a specific referent have now come to be used to express one’s feelings. The best example is the word “evangelical.” The word “evangelical” has shifted, ever so slowly, from referring to someone who is a protestant Christian that places an emphasis upon the cross, personal conversion, and evangelism to referring to someone who has regressive outdated moral views. The same can be said for the word “fundamentalist.” Fundamentalists were those who held on to the fundamentals of the faith (inerrancy, the physical resurrection, penal substitutionary atonement, etc.). The referent for the word “fundamentalist” contained the set of those who subscribed to these tenets. Now the referent has been co-opted by the connotation. Fundamentalist connotes a staunchy, religious, right wing, conservative, Christian who is often intellectually deficient and is full of hate towards anyone unlike themselves.

We are at a loss for words. We are no longer able to use our words, and to choose our words wisely, but rather we have come to use certain words as catch-all phrases packed with moral judgments that were never packed into those words.

So go out and buy your “artisanal pizzas” from Dominos; but remember when you talk about “artisanal pizzas” you are watering down our language and you are making a moral judgment upon that pizza instead of using the word in its objective sense.

Enjoy your pizza.

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