Tilting at Windmills: Mission Control: We’ve got an ... issue?

OK. I’ve had it. For a while there, I was trying to ignore a mystifying tendency on the part of public people everywhere to snip off the hard edges of language and turn all concepts into verbal mush. But recently, when a radio reporter announced that an overturned tractor-trailer was causing traffic issues on the New Jersey Turnpike, I finally began to paw at the earth with my hooves, snort fire, and reach for my pen.

Problems. Problems. Yes, world. Even though we have been trained to call stewardesses flight attendants, waiters servers, deaf people hearing impaired, manic-depressives bi-polar, and fat ladies real women (ha! Tell that to my scale), we still do have problems.

Let us consider two definitions brought to you courtesy of The Oxford American Dictionary.

“Issue: The point in question, an important topic for discussion.”

“Problem: Something difficult to deal with or understand.”

“At issue, Mrs. Farnagle, is whether it is sensible to order hot coffee from a drive-through diner, place that coffee cup between your legs, and then attempt to transfer it safely to your mouth while you are driving a car.”



As opposed to:

“The problem, Boss, is that after I served Mrs. Farnagle her hot black coffee, she crammed the take-out cup between her legs, started driving away, and spilled it. Now she’s suing us because she says the coffee was so hot that it scalded her thighs!”

Think about it: Twelve-year-old Gorlock tears a slat from the picket fence around the schoolyard to use as a toothpick after he has tried to eat the soccer team coach. Is Gorlock an issue child or is he a problem child? Think further: A storm tears the roofs off thirteen houses and almost drowns two teenagers in a stolen convertible at the drive-in movie. Are we, as media gurus insist, having climatological issues? Or are we having plain old down and dirty weather problems?

A fourteen-year-old girl has acne. Does she have a skin issue or a skin problem? Your husband has embarked upon affair with the local postmistress (no pun intended). Once you would have known that your marriage was in serious trouble. Now, adultery has been demoted to a marital issue.

Instead of conveying danger when danger is present (hurricanes; lawsuits; infidelity; obesity), language jockeys have taken the sass, brass, sting, and spring out of hot button topics and so effectively neutralized words that we are being lulled into passive acceptance. Suspects of crimes have become persons of interest. Attempted burglaries have become home invasions. The poor shlub trying to keep his customers from stealing him blind has been taught to refer to theft prevention as loss control. And the thug who knocks out Johnny’s teeth isn’t even a bully anymore; he’s just a kid with self-esteem issues whose schoolyard tyranny is a form of acting out.

As a literate nation, we used to cheer as the sleek, high-stepping stallion of words thundered past the finishing line. Now, we sit dumbly by as those once virile words are being pulled out of the race and replaced by gelded ponies. Why? And why, if – as the song from Casablanca insists – a kiss is still a kiss and a sigh is still a sigh, have problems become issues?

Two astronauts in a space capsule are about to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. The crew’s captain has a heart attack. The electrical system and its backup have gone out. The capsule starts to overheat. After a brief burst of static, a communication is finally received from the astronauts.

“Mission Control. Can you hear me? We’ve got an ... issue?”

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