Along with many other people, I spent a lot of time on Tuesday glued to the computer screen following the rescue efforts after the terrible earthquake in New Zealand. Perhaps because it is part of the commonwealth or because they speak English there, although it is on the other side of the world, there was tremendous interest in this tragedy in the UK.
The Queen, who is officially the head of state of New Zealand, issued a very appropriate statement saying she was “utterly shocked” by the news. This was a suitable reaction from an older lady who has visited the country and has strong links with it. One can imagine that perhaps she felt shaken, maybe even a bit tearful and in need of a cup of tea.
Also in the news on Tuesday was an interview with Lord Grade, former chairman of both the BBC and ITV, in which he described the fact that Bruce Forsyth, a popular entertainer, has not been knighted as “shocking.” (Forsyth has another honour, which he is very happy with).
The contrast was…shocking. On the one hand, hundreds of people have died, hundreds more have been injured, some very seriously; thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged. The economic cost to New Zealand is huge, the human cost unmeasurable. On the other hand, someone who, whilst he has given pleasure to many people and is a bit of a national icon, does not really have significant life changing achievements, and who has already been honoured, did not get a high enough honour in Lord Grade’s opinion.
To use the same word to describe both emotions is a profound debasement of our language. When we use words with a strong meaning to say something minor, we have nothing left which with to express ourselves when a major event happens. We are all guilty of it – minor exaggerations are commonplace – “I’m so full, I couldn’t eat another thing”… until the dessert comes; “Thank you so much!” for a small favour – how can you express gratitude when someone really helps you?
But it is worse than that, it is a debasement of our emotions. It is very easy to watch the rescue attempts or the ongoing revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East and feel for the people involved and then flick to another channel or website for some light relief. We are all familiar with stories of great people who were unable to sleep/eat/enjoy themselves when other people were suffering. We are not necessarily capable of doing that on a long term basis, but the least we can do is treat a disaster with the respect and grief which it deserves and put our other concerns into perspective. One way of doing that is by adjusting the way we speak and using meaningful language for meaningful events.