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We shall be positive, anon.

Let me begin by saying I am not a linguist. It is true I chose the modern languages tripos rather than moral sciences at Cambridge and I have been guilty of the occasional neologism. But I am not as disturbed as I should be by the erosion of the English language. Or is it corrosion?

No one has seen me wince at "de-freeze." I no longer shudder at "de-plane." And at last I am successful at hiding all reaction to "de-emphasize." Now I'm not about to decide whether that is progress or anaesthesis. But really these are not language problems. (I see the raised eyebrows of Neil Millar and Christopher Andreae.) My friends, it all points to a new kind of identity crisis. For it is not so much what is happening to language as what is happening to you and me.

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Which brings me to my quarrel with "non." Let me open my can of worms. According to our dictionaries, "non" refers to an absence of something. To come face to face with "non" is to find an absence floating around in your experience. Take "non-acceptance." Is this some limbo between acceptance and rejection or a straight negation? "Non-aggression": is peace being defined here in terms of the absence of war or violence? If so, then what kind of presencem defines the peace between us?

And what is a "non-believer" these days? -- unless we are apt to believe in "non-thinkers," Non sequitur -- yes. But "nonconsequence"??

I wonder how many of us feel just a little strange when referring to ourselves -- by force of circumstance, of course -- as "non-smokers." By some unkind twist, we are suddenly in the "non" category ourselves. As if the inference were that smoking is the normally accepted activity. We begin to know what it means to feel negatively defined. What is positive about smoking? we may ask. Might not the indulgence be referred to more accurately (i.e. negatively) as "non-breathing" so that those emancipated from this "non-experience" might some day speak positively of joining the ranks of the "breathers"?

Both ambiguity and moral cowardice attend the use of the prefix "non". If some dear "non-descript" (j'acuse!)m decided to dub me a "non-worker," would it be because he viewed me as a capitalist, a prince, or a liability to the state? -- Or all three? Nothing perhaps as catastrophic for some as feeling "non-English" or "non-American." How negative can we get? But this is all rather more than a human right issue.

Yes, we're on thin ice with "non-Catholic" or "non- white." Nowadays, "non-Christian" is no longer pejorative. And strangely enough, "non-partisan" has come to acquire positive meaning. (The only exception?)

And so on from "non" to "non", through the forest of semantics and the meaning of meanings into the presence of ontology. Ontology? Not what is happening to language, you see, but what is happening to you and me -- at the opposite ends of communication. Identity cannot be defined by negatives. We are what is happening to us in the language of being. In terms of presence,m in terms of yes.m There are really no such things as "non-entities." How are you supposed to feel when classified as a "non-jogger"? And what kind of ontological disaster is a "non-person"?

Enough of this "non-sense"! I should have read moral sciences at Cambridge.


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