Mechanical Failure

I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated the effect political correctness has had on language until I took my car to the repair shop one morning last week. Ernie, the service manager who wrote up my service order, told me he’d call to let me know what his team found, to get my permission to do the work, and to give me estimates on the cost of that work. Later that afternoon, my phone rang:

Ernie: Mr. O’Brien?

Me: No. Mr. O’Brien was my father. He was older than me. My name’s Mark.

Ernie: Ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one, Mr O …

Me: Mark. My name is Mark.

Ernie: Right. Mark. Well look, Mark, we found quite a few things on your car that need to be taken care of.

Me: Like what?

Ernie: Well, for one thing, you need a new exhaust personifold.

Me: A new what?

Ernie: You know. It’s the thing that funnels all the exhaust gases from the cylinders into the exhaust pipe that goes into the muffler.

Me: You mean the manifold?

Ernie: Jesus! Don’t say that, Mr. O …

Me: Mark! My name is Mark!

Ernie: Right, Mark. But don’t say manifold. The line might be bugged.

Me: Are you crazy?

Ernie: No. We already got busted once for inappropriate language.

Me: What?

Ernie: Yeah. It’s when you say bad words.

Me: I know what inappropriate language is.

Ernie: Oh.

Me: Do you really have to go along with that nonsense?

Ernie: Well, to tell you the truth, we feel like we’re being personipulated for political purposes.

Me: This is a joke, right?

Ernie: Not at all. There was a person in here last week who was militant about that stuff.

Me: Was it a man or woman?

Ernie: They told me I couldn’t say.

Me: They? I thought it was just one person.

Ernie: It was.

Me: But you said they.

Ernie: I don’t write the rules. I just go along with ‘em so I don’t get fired.

Me: You never pushed back at all?

Ernie: I did once. They told me to go play tiddlywinks with personhole covers. Then my boss told me not to be disrespectful, but he whispered, “There’s too persony of ‘em to fight back.”

Me: Good grief.

Ernie: So, Mr. O …

Me: Mark!! My name is Mark!!

Ernie: Whatever. Do you want us to replace your personifold, or what?

Me: Just shoot me.

If it Quacks Like a Duck …

If you accept that all the technical stuff in writing constitutes its mechanics — spelling, capitalization, use of pronouns, numerals, symbols, punctuation, grammar, et al. (none of which we learn or care about anymore) — then we have a massive mechanical failure. We also have a failure of respect for language and meaningful expression. We do, however, seem to have a robust respect for (or at least a blind obedience to) political narratives, which is exactly why we are where we are.

If I can be banned for saying this, vilified for saying that, canceled, or otherwise punished for uttering or writing anything else that fails to conform to the political narrative du jour or the demands of any special-interest or identity group, that ain’t free speech, kids. It’s tyranny. We just don’t have enough respect for language to call it that.

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (George Orwell)

We have a mechanical failure of language. If we fix it, it’ll be a boon to hupersonkind.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Joe Biden, 46th US President, a narcissist, but not 45? “The citizens under the collective spell believe anything said to them by the narcissist.” If that’s the case, why does Biden continue to have poor job approval? He’s probably one of the least listened-to Presidents we’ve ever had! Whether you like his policies and programs or not, a good portion of the voting and non-voting public don’t have a clue what he stands for or has done. He tracts behind the guy who has 91 felony charges pending! Oy…

    That aside, I share your concern for the growing potential for tyranny, dictatorship, and, maybe worse, theocracy. I have nothing against people wanting to practice their religion if they respect others, but when I hear that we are a “biblical republic,” it gives me more than a little apprehension…

  2. Whew. If Ernie had said any of that, I think I would consider punching the big clock.

    Mark, I agree with much of what you say in para 2. I’m curious why the special interest pronouns have flourished in some quarters NOW. I wonder if it’s related to the article I published yesterday – “Hello, it’s me!” Is it about being recognized even if it’s narrowly defined outside the traditional? Is it about being “respected” in a “world that is going to Hell”?

    I don’t see it as tyranny. YET. It’s not mandated. There’s no consequence for not referring to someone as “they” other than they get pissed off. The whole pronoun thing reminds me of California. Goat yoga was really big for a while. Now they have Oxygen Scalp Massages. And “mocktales” – non-alcoholic drinks in bars are the rage. I’m not making this up. I honestly think, “this too shall pass.”

    Tell Ernie to take the exhaust hose out of his mouth.

    And with respect to ol’ E.B., we need to feel both.

  3. Mark, it’s late in the day, and I was up really early. Tell me the convo with Ernie was a joke, right?

    Identity is really important right now, and I want to respect that, I really do. I want to be tolerant because we see evidence all around us of severe intolerance: racism, anti-semitism, sexual orientation etc. But if I mess up pronouns on occasion, well, then I mess them up. (How am I to know that someone I meet casually wants to be known as “they”?) It’s not on purpose, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Because of my age – trends come and go – I have to think that some of this will pass. I wish the real serious stuff would pass, but if history teaches us anything, that ain’t happening.

    Did he really say “personfold”?

    • Jeff, to paraphrase the punchline of a joke about a talking dog, Ernie didn’t say any of that shit.

      I agree, of course, that identity is important. But at the expense of what other people and what other priorities? Grandpa O’Brien would have said we’re chasing the mice while the elephants are running down the street. Maybe it’s just that my sensitivities are finite. It’s hard for me to be concerned about someone’s special-interest pronouns when much of the world is going to Hell. And it’s not at all easy for me to accept the fact that much of the world is going to Hell because we’re distracting ourselves with special interests.

      “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” (E.B. White)