Words, words, words. So many to use, even some to weaponize.

Our language gives us countless words to choose from in everyday communication. In navigating the universe of words and how we use them, we know there are some words that provoke, some that confuse, and certainly others to avoid.

According to at least one source on the subject, there are at least a million words in the English language. But whether we accept that figure – or a much lower number as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, we also know there are many words that shouldn’t be used in polite discourse lest they offend, while others are deliberately chosen so they deceive and demean.

Think about it. Out of thousands of words that begin with the letter F, we’re nevertheless told that there is the singular F word. Or the N word. Or the S word. While you’re at it, take your turn at defining what you might believe the singular word is for each of the 23 remaining letters of the alphabet.

For the purpose of illustration, look at this oft-quoted classic uttered by Ronald Reagan: “… government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem. It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant, it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

So in just two sentences, Reagan might be given credit for converting the G word and the L word into the favorite pejoratives of the right. With this imprimatur provided by Reagan, the G and L words remain pejoratives to this day.

Take the G word. Several weeks ago, Neil Clark, a lobbyist for ECOT, the notorious online charter school, was able to use the G word twice in the same sentence. “It’s interesting that the district schools, which make no mistake, are government-run schools, are complaining about their government money when they continually fail to do their jobs,” he said.

Clark’s skill in serving as a spokesman for a target like ECOT is consistent with the advice that Frank Luntz, the Republican wordsmith par excellence, offered in an interview about a decade ago. Luntz has spent a lifetime exploiting the emotional content of language. In fact, Luntz works hard to find, test, and launch those emotional trigger words. “… [M]y job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind,” he believes.

Perhaps the author and critic Gore Vidal had Frank Luntz types in mind when he wrote:  “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action… Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”

So for those who don’t like to pay taxes, the perfect emotional trigger might be the term government schools. (Gosh, I can feel that emotion when I type the word government rather than public school.) Luntz, who also popularized the use of the emotional trigger “death tax,” must be comfortable in seeing that term used more and more rather than the less emotional “estate tax” or “inheritance tax.”

With their deft use of language and emotional trigger words, you have to hand it to charter school advocates for their agility with the King’s English and their ability to always have it both ways. They are careful in nearly always using the term public charter schools while at the same time crafting the emotional trigger of government schools to describe traditional public schools that are community-based and where the residents of the district elect their neighbors to serve on public (or is that government) school boards.

In Ohio, the use of language is even more interesting. Look no further than the original 1997 legislation that created the current parallel system of government, – er, I mean public – schools. The language throughout Section 3314 of the Ohio Revised Code refers to community schools rather than charter schools – the only state in the nation to use this descriptor. Never mind that the public schools are the genuine community schools.

Does use of the term community school rather than charter school serve to confuse, and use of the term government school rather than public school serve to trigger emotions in some people? Lobbyists and language mavens certainly know the answer to that question.

There are other word choices that rattle around in charterdom. In particular, the term school choice is used over and over rather than privatization. But then doesn’t deregulation itself create the atmosphere for the use of words that sell or words that provoke or confuse?

Twist, contort, distort. Redundant? Trigger words? That’s the nature of language.

Full disclosure: Ever since I read Vance Packard’s classic The Hidden Persuaders in high school, I’ve tried to watch and be careful with … my language – as well as that used by others. With that predisposition, these eyes and ears follow the charter school crowd with particular attention.

So if someone uses the word government as a pejorative, can’t others use the likes of Enron, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia Communications, Lehmann Brothers … and White Hat – icons of non-transparent and unaccountable corporate America – in the same fashion?

If the anti-public education crowd insists on using the term government schools, I propose that hereon, good citizens use the term corporate schools rather than charter or community schools.  While we’re at it, how about privatization rather than school choice? We need agreed-upon descriptors to counter those who use the term government schools as their mantra and battle cry.

After all, it’s about language. Proponents of public education need to get more effective in how to use language effectively.

So we’ll wink when lobbyists and charter school proponents refer to government schools. That will only encourage friends of public education to start using the term corporate schools to more accurately describe the many national charter school chains that help to drain more than one billion annually from public education in Ohio. When we use words, what’s in a school name is also quite important as a reminder of the effects of privatization.

The use of the term corporate school to replace charter school or community school will help us to remember the Enrons and those other corporate trash heaps of recent memory. In fact, it might be in the public interest if we all start using that descriptor, along with privatization rather than school choice.

Just like those who live by the sword, those who live by pejoratives might also die by them. We need to watch our language – as well as that of the privatizers.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.