My Issue with Issues @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews happily announced the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website. 

Language curmudgeons like me are constantly finding new usages with which to be annoyed.  I know, times change.  Inevitably, meanings evolve.  It’s called semantic drift, although sometimes it feels like a lahar – one of those fast-moving mudflows that course down the slopes of a volcano.  It’s not easy for those of us stuck in the mud, clinging to our old dictionaries even as cyber slang and tech jargon and nonbinary pronouns swirl around us.  Every generation invents an array of new words to match the present moment.  Many are essential and make perfect sense.  They drop “trippingly off the tongue.”  Naturally many older words become obsolete or their meaning is altered through usage and – too often in my curmudgeonly opinion, mis-usage.

For a long time I’ve been irritated by the substitution of the word “issue” for “problem.”  In days gone by, people debated issues, they didn’t have them.  Having an issue sounds gentler and less embarrassing than having a problem.  Saying that somebody’s got a problem has acquired a sense of belligerence.  It can even be offensive.  The definition of the word “issue” expanded to mean “emotional and psychological difficulties” around fifty years ago.  I ought to have gotten over my objection by now.  Judging from the frequency of use, pretty much everybody has issues nowadays or thinks somebody else does.  But when I read in my local paper that flooding and landslides are causing travel issues, I picture the long line of cars stranded on a washed-out highway in British Columbia last week and get irritated all over again.  Maybe what distinguishes an issue from a problem depends on how close you are to the rising waters.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we recently suffered a “heat dome” with temperatures soaring to 115 degrees in Seattle and higher still in the Portland area where sixty-two people died from the heat.  “That number’s not palatable for us,” said the emergency-management director of Multnomah County.  Not palatable?  With over a million words in the English language to choose from, how vacuous is “not palatable”?  It’s downright inappropriate.

“Inappropriate” is a catch-all that covers a multitude of sins.  I can remember when it described social peccadillos like using the wrong fork at dinner or wearing white after Labor Day.  Now it’s applied to all manner of shameful behavior, including prosecutable crimes.  Without a fuller description, it’s not clear if the transgression is something as minor as giggling in church, or as serious as sexual harassment or financial corruption.  “Inappropriate” is a clucking, squeamish sort of word.  It allows the speaker to register disapproval without naming the objectionable behavior in specific terms.

Another weasel word that irks me is “problematic.”  Does adding two syllables double the danger?  “Houston, things up here are problematic.”  Or do those extra syllables just make the speaker sound smarter?  Lately it seems no one uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word when a multi-syllable abstraction can be found.  Pronouncing something “problematic” rings with profundity.  It’s the final verdict.  Mic drop.  Nothing more need be said.  And yet, it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

When during a recent interview I heard the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz, characterize what happened to him as “unacceptable,” something in my head just snapped.  The man was lured into the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul where he was tortured, murdered, dismembered with a bone saw, and carried out in pieces stuffed inside a suitcase.  If ever there was an argument against mincing words, it’s there in that suitcase.  To describe that horror as “unacceptable” is so mild as to be laughable, although to be fair, English is not Ms. Cengiz’s first language.  She is in London learning how English speakers express ourselves.  But “unacceptable” takes the famous British knack for understatement to a whole new level.

It’s not Ms. Cengiz’ bravery I question.  She is heroic to continue to focus attention on Khashoggi’s murder at the risk of her own life.  What bugs me are all these watered-down, mealy-mouthed euphemisms that permeate the language.  Polite euphemisms are a necessary lubricant that keep friendships intact and civilization humming.  And heaven knows, we’re all better people for thinking before we speak, for exercising tact and trying to avoid unconscious cruelties and hurt feelings.  But this curmudgeon has an issue with issues and a deep and abiding prejudice against problematic adjectives.