Monday, May 17, 2010

Be Careful How You Use Words (Words Mean Things)

This letter was published in the Wall Street Journal on 17 May 2010:

I am writing to express my bitter regret at the most unfortunate use of the word "Polish" when referring to a Nazi concentration camp in an otherwise very interesting article ("On Style: Picking the Best of Spring's New Style Books," Personal Journal, May 6). By employing that linguistic shortcut, you succeeded in hurting the feelings of the people whose best sons and daughters were the first to suffer from terrible atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in 1939.

An extensive system of extermination, concentration, labor and prisoner-of-war camps was built and operated by Nazi Germany. Describing a concentration camp as "Polish," only because it was located on the occupied territory of Poland, is tantamount to indicating that Poland was a participant in the Nazi crime. In reality, my country was Hitler's most brutalized victim with more than six million Polish citizens losing their lives during the war.

The blood spilled by the Polish military on all fronts of World War II, many times next to their American comrades in arms, calls for more diligence in choosing your vocabulary.

Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka

Consul General of Poland

New York
To be honest, when I read the original article, I did not think of Poland as the aggressor but as the victim. Many of us are very familiar with the history of World War II and understand those words to be shorthand for the atrocities committed by the Nazis on Polish soil during World War II.

Yet the consul general does have a point. At some point people may not remember what happened in the 1940’s. Even now there are those who deny all or part of the Holocaust. General Eisenhower, when he first saw the concentration camps, ordered photos taken. How prescient was his reasoning that people may not believe what the Allies found there in the aftermath of World War II.

So perhaps a better phrase might be “Nazi camp(s) built and operated on occupied Polish soil.” Or maybe just “Nazi camps in Poland.”

Writers are often taught not to assume the reader knows what is written about. A magazine I read includes submission guidelines not to write like an “insider.” This is a religious publication for a church that is also intended to be used in outreach. If the writer strings together acronyms like “NWC”, “MLC”, “DMLC”, or “BORAM” without explaining what those terms mean, the non-member (and I daresay the nominal member) will be confused. The guidelines for writers states to spell out the acronyms with the acronym, so that the writer uses “Northwestern College (NWC)”, “Martin Luther College (MLC)”, “Dr Martin Luther College (DMLC)”, and “Book of Reports and Memorials (BORAM)”.

Overall, Americans tend to be sloppy writers. It may be a huge reason we have great disagreements among people. We don’t take the time to express ourselves well. Nor do we take the time to listen and ask questions to ascertain that we are hearing what the other person truly is saying.

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