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Just words? Not on your life

Words are sometimes used to inflate, demean, soften, distort, or distract us from reality. In our celebrity culture, what we say or do is often defined by those who have an interest in either protecting or promoting themselves.

Take, for example, the word “inappropriate.” Have you noticed how often people use that term to describe wrong, even reprehensible, behavior? The offender can usually be found before a microphone apologizing for acting inappropriately, asking for forgiveness, and promising never to do it again.

Never do you hear words like “evil” … “sinful” … “outrageous” … “unforgivable.” Defined as unsuitable or improper, “inappropriate” is a much softer term meant to connote an error more of oversight than conscious act.

“Misspoke” is a word used to cover mistakes, false information, or downright lies. The word implies that the accurate information was in the mind but somehow was lost on the way to the mouth, a translation error and not intended to deceive.

We sometimes use words to inflate the importance of people or activities. An example is “artist.” I remember when celebrities of another day were content to be called “entertainers.”

I may be old fashioned but it seems today that every songwriter, hip-hopper, or rapper refers to himself as an artist. A word that once referred to extraordinary talent and creativity has been diluted by overuse.

Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Tony Bennett were content to be singers, entertainers, or performers. Sinatra referred to himself as a “saloon singer.” Many actors today prefer to be considered artists practicing their craft. Imagine John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda strutting about calling themselves artists. They were content to be movie stars or performers.

Shall we start making “artists” of surgeons, athletes, scientists, or lawyers? What about teachers, nurses, politicians, accountants, and plumbers, who are every bit as talented and often more productive than entertainers? Do you think Mayor Menino, sometimes referred to as the “urban mechanic,” would prefer “urban artist” or “political Picasso?”

Being just a “celebrity” or “entertainer” does not satisfy the oversized egos of many performers. They understandably want to attach their popularity to something far more grandiose than their performances. To call it art, and themselves artists, elevates them beyond their talent, which often consists of jumping up and down and yelling unintelligible lyrics accompanied by overpowering music, klieg lights, and fireworks.

Entertainers of my generation were a softer and gentler kind whose songs told a story. They didn’t try to beat you into submission or whip you into hysteria.

“Hero” is another word that has been diluted by widespread use. It describes behavior above and beyond the call of duty, an exceptional act of courage or sacrifice. Now it is used to describe persons doing their duty. By performing their sometimes dangerous tasks, first responders are doing what is expected of them. They are doing those jobs they agreed to undertake and for which the rest of us should be both grateful and respectful. But that alone does not make them heroes.

Those in the military also engage in public service that from time to time is hazardous. Persons who perform those tasks honorably are entitled to respect and admiration. But not everyone who has served in the military, or even in combat, is a hero. Most simply did what was expected of them.

Veterans have earned our respect and gratitude for their service. Those who have served with distinction by performing extraordinary acts of bravery have earned the right to be called heroes. Their exceptional acts sets them apart from those who behaved honorably and did what was expected of them under hazardous circumstances.

Words should be used carefully. Their misuse can be a form of hubris.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.