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When we limit our vocabulary, we need to consider the bigger picture

By in Opinions

CUP Opinions Bureau Chief

CALGARY (CUP) — It’s a tough time for words beginning with “p.”

“Pursuant,” “promulgate,” “preclude” and “practicable” have been banned by the United States government in documents produced for the public. The already limited usage of these words will probably diminish or drop off entirely because of this move to zero fat, plain language.

I worry that “perpetuity” might be next on that alliterative hit list. Some would argue that you could just say something will “last forever” rather than “exist in perpetuity.”

But perpetuity packs more punch.

“Perpetuity” conveys a solemn permanence. It’s the bait on the end of humanity’s timeline. The word assures us not only that something will exist forever, but that “forever” itself actually exists. Perpetuity is a sturdy noun; forever, a mere adverb or, at best, a “quasi-noun” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (and according its usage in the previous sentence).

Pitting synonyms against one another may seem trite. But recently, I found myself considering the bigger picture and the greatest differences in denotation. Like “truncation” versus “perpetuity.” When you apply these words to life — to one woman’s life, especially — degrees of meaning matter.

Almost exactly three years ago, a young journalist who worked at a CUP paper, The Weal, had her life truncated in a multiple murder-suicide that left the city of Calgary reeling.

The friends and family of Amber Webb-Bowerman responded by building something that would last. Something in perpetuity.

SAIT Students' Association vice-president Caroline MacKenzie speaks at the Amber Webb-Bowerman Foundation cheque presentation ceremony on May 26.

The Amber Webb-Bowerman Foundation sponsors scholarships at five universities to aid students interested in journalism and the arts. On May 26, the Amber Webb-Bowerman Foundation announced that the $1,000 scholarship it awards annually at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology is now an endowment. No matter what happens to the foundation, the $28,500 it has presented to SAIT ensures the award will live on indefinitely. Infinitely. In perpetuity.

That certainty will affect not only the lives of innumerable students, but the healing of those affected by Webb-Bowerman’s passing.

Webb-Bowerman’s mother told me that she was apprehensive about the foundation starting a scholarship program. She thought at the outset, “If it drops off in two years, it didn’t work.”

But it has worked. And will continue to.

Webb-Bowerman was a great lover of language. Before her death, she had been studying Mandarin with her brother.

“After she died, the Chinese went by the wayside,” said Webb-Bowerman’s mother. “He said he’ll learn French someday.”

If a word or a language can call to mind not just denotations or connotations, but powerful and even painful recollections of a loved one, how wary should we be of limiting our vocabulary?

When a life is cut short, making something that lasts may combat a sense of fragility and futility (hence tombstones, monuments and in this case, scholarships). However, the comfort we glean from something permanent comes only in part from the thing itself. We are consoled by the language we use to express its infallibility. What sounds inflated to some is integral to others.

Language, although not comparable to a human life, does take on a life of its own. It is not any person’s or government’s place to curtail it.

photo: Vanessa Annand/CUP

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