American ingenuity. American exceptionalism. But what about American precision? Does it even exist? Not when it comes to holidays, and seldom when it comes to language.
While grade school children may be an exception, Valentine’s Day for adults is about lovers. Saturday Night Live did a funny bit earlier this year about how we have eroded this celebration of romance to a point where mothers, brothers, sisters and even bosses are sending out valentines. Sweet, but kind of creepy if you think about it.
Of course, we celebrate the Fourth of July as American Independence Day, which is the date when the colonies declared independence. But declaring it and winning it are two different things, as anyone who’s ever gone through a divorce can tell you. We do have a Constitution Day, which falls on the day of the signing of the document by the Constitutional Convention. Are either of these dates when the country was founded? Should we have celebrated the ratification of the founding document instead? Too late now.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday honoring those died who while serving in the armed forces, but it has grown to include those who have served but didn’t get killed, for which we have Veterans Day, or anyone who has died that we knew and loved, for which we should have Day of the Dead. (We can appropriate it just like we did tacos.)
There’s no real harm in sending a valentine to your sister or putting flowers on Memaw’s grave on any day of the year. And we can date the founding of the country from the declaration, rather than anything having to do with the Constitution itself, particularly since George M. Cohan already included the fourth of July in the lyrics for “Yankee Doodle Boy.” It’s not wrong, just imprecise.
We could talk about the differences between “imply” and “infer,” or the nuances between “envy” and “jealousy,” but anyone who cares about such things probably already knows what they are. And many people have totally given up on understanding that to “affect” something would result in an “effect,” so they have replaced both words with a single word. So now one can seek to “impact” something to achieve a desired “impact.” How’s that for precision?
Now let’s talk about some terms being tossed around following Robert Mueller’s statement earlier this week. We can start with “insufficient evidence” compared with “exoneration.” If the official position of the Dallas district attorney’s office is that there was insufficient evidence to charge me with a murder, I would naturally be worried about any additional investigation that might uncover anything that might be buried under those new rose bushes. Should that office instead determine that Miss Scarlett did it in the ballroom with a candlestick while I was in the billiard room with Colonel Mustard, that would be an exoneration.
Mueller was very precise in saying that, because of Department of Justice policy, “Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.” So let’s take this out of the political arena. Our friend Sue couldn’t afford the sable coat so that was not an option she could consider. Does that imply that she would have bought the sable if she had the money? Of course not. She might have gone with the chinchilla. Nothing implied, so nothing should be inferred.
That same DOJ policy is the reference behind Mueller’s additional statement that “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Is he talking about impeachment? Well, yes, that can be inferred from those words as that is the only thing to which they could refer. But is he implying that Congress should start impeachment proceedings? Well, when the private investigator Sally hired brought evidence to her that her husband was having affairs with three neighbors, two of her sisters, and her gay best friend, Sam Spade didn’t tell her to divorce him. Sally has to decide for herself what she should do next.
Nancy Pelosi, like Robert Mueller, is also a master of precise language. But precision in one’s words isn’t the ultimate goal of communication. Clarity is.