Policing the Language Police

Ed Kilgore linked today to a Tim Noah piece about the misuse of the word “Christian,” and I was all ready to throw in my own two cents about this until I clicked the link and read Tim’s first paragraph:

In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America’s first multiplatform gaffe. Today I banish “Christian ”—not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

Hold on there, pardner. Here’s what I want to know: why do so many people get so upset about particular new pieces of jargon that enter widespread use? There’s nothing wrong with optics or inflection point or pivot. They’re perfectly good descriptive words. “Optics” doesn’t mean quite the same thing as “appearances” and “inflection point” definitely doesn’t mean the same thing as “significant developments.” That makes them genuinely useful. “Pivot” seems fine too. All three of these terms seem like they’re both nicely descriptive and full of meaning. When someone says “optics,” for example, I know that they’re talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you’re referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

Anyway, if Tim Noah can be a language cop, then I can be a language cop cop. And I hereby declare all these words just fine. Anyone want to fight about it?


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.