The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Language


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."

Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vagueness—objectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avarice—if anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.


Can you find a better bike sharing system name?

Last week, DC and Arlington announced a massive new regional bike-sharing system to replace SmartBike and be implemented later this year. But what will it be named?

Minneapolis is going with "Nice Ride."

DDOT has a survey at which you can vote for up to three of their 17 ideas, but the "other" box at the bottom of their survey implies that nobody is too enamored with any of the suggestions so far.

Can we do better?

For the record, here are the 17 candidate names put forth by DC and Arlington: Bike2Go, BikeAround, Bikington, CAB (Capital Area Bixi), Capital Bikeshare, George, GoBike, Capital Bixi, PopCycle, ShareCycle, Spin, Velo2Go, Ucycle, WeBike, WeCycle, YouCycle, and ZoomBike.

Several of those names follow the SmartBike model of a compound word. That seems suggestive, so here are some ideas along those lines:

Pick one word from each column to form a compound:

There are 112 unique combinations using that table. Some of them duplicate DDOT ideas, like WeBike and WeCycle, while others invoke familiar brands, like MetroCycle and ZipBike. While WMATA and ZipCar might object to names that imply a connection, would anyone care if we took advantage of an old car-sharing brand and named our system FlexBike?

What about something like BikeWeb, which could open up all sorts of fun logo concepts, or something like CityCycle, which might be a little generic, but hey, alliterative. VeloFlex sounds cool, but will Americans accept such a European-sounding name?

Of course, the name doesn't have to be a compound. Maybe Hop works better on its own. Or maybe there's a good acronym out there, following the CAB model. Or we could deviate from the word Bixi itself. Replace the B with D for DC and you get Dixi, with all its political connotations, but W for Washington results in Wixi, which could catch on. Or maybe we invent a new word altogether; Bixi is a combination of bicycle and taxi, so how about we combine bicycle and Metro to form Bitro?

There are thousands of ideas out there. What do you think? Like one of the 17 DDOT suggestions? Like one of mine? Got your own? Let's hear it.


Medical Examiner "accident" finding causes confusion

WTOP created some consternation among cyclists last night with its brief news item entitled, "Cyclist death officially ruled an accident."

Photo by drewsaunders.

The article says that the Medical Examiner's office "has ruled the death of bicyclist Constance Holden an accident." At first blush, it looks like the city's investigatory apparatus has again dismissed a cyclist's death, and so quickly. However, this is not the conclusion of the crash investigation, which will take more time. This is just the medical examiner's classification.

Medical examiners assign a "manner of death" to each fatality, and it falls into a small number of fixed categories. In DC, those are "natural, accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined, and pending."

In short, when the Medical Examiner says "accident" here, they don't mean "accidental" as in "unpreventable," but "accidental" as in "not deliberate." There's no way for the M.E. to determine the circumstances that led to the victim being hit with "multiple blunt impact injuries." They are basically just concluding that, for example, Ms. Holden didn't also suffer a heart attack just before the crash, or that after the crash someone didn't also shoot her while she was still alive.

This is a particularly clear example of the problems with using the word "accident" to talk about traffic crashes. All the Medical Examiner determined was that the crash was the cause of Ms. Holden's death. Yet using the term "accident" as the manner of death implies that the M.E. has determined more than that; that they've also determined nobody was at fault. That's not what they are saying, but many people could and did jump to that conclusion upon reading a fairly non-insightful news article.

The problems with this medical examiner's classification scheme go beyond just traffic incidents. Last year, I sat on a jury in a murder trial. The decedent had died from falling and hitting his head on a step. The prosecution argued another man had hit him with an unknown object first, causing him to pass out and fall; the defense argued he was drunk and fell on his own.

The DC Medical Examiner classified the death a homicide. However, the defense argued that they had done so in part because they had seen the police report which talked about this other man. If there had been nobody else there, said the defense, would they still have ruled it a homicide? How did they really know? It was difficult to separate out how much of the M.E.'s conclusion came from scientific evidence and how much came from outside information.

The Public Defender Service brought in Delaware's Chief Medical Examiner, who said he would have ruled it an accident. Putting these classifications on seems to only serve to try to prejudice juries one way or the other. The scientific expert thinks it's a homicide, so it must be a homicide, some might think, even though that scientific expert is really just coming to that conclusion because that's what the police already think.

It does a disservice to Constance Holden to say that her death was "officially ruled an accident." Her death was officially determined to have occurred as a consequence of the injuries she sustained from her encounter with a large military truck. How that truck came to be in contact with her body, and whether that was blamelessly accidental, negligence, involuntary manslaughter (a form of homicide) or something else is for the police investigators to determine, not the Medical Examiner.


Safety is no accident, says Carr

Maryland Delegates Al Carr (D-Kensington) and Bill Bronrott (D-Bethesda) have introduced a bill to replace the word "accident" with "crash" in the state's laws. The House will hold a hearing on the bill this afternoon.

Accident, Maryland. Photo by oh_candy.

The bill would use the word "crash" instead of "accident" where it occurs in the laws of the State of Maryland, such as in the sections requiring police reports after certain types of crashes, requiring drivers to provide insurance information after a crash, etc.

This may seem like a triviality, but it matters. While "accident" has become a common term for these types of vehicular incidents, it also carries a connotation of being beyond the reasonable control of any person.

We have the phrase, "it was just an accident," where "just" in that case implies blamelessness. Some uses of the word "accident" imply a complete lack of agency by the parties as well, such as "chance; fortune; luck: I was there by accident." There's also the phrase "an accident of birth," over which the individual involved has no control.

Merriam-Webster defines "accident" as "an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance." While certainly crashes are unplanned and even unforeseen by the parties involved, they are often not unforeseeable; many so-called "accidents" stem from drunk driving, speeding, and poor road design. There are many specific locations and times of day where crashes occur frequently, and while we don't foresee the specifics, we absolutely foresee the general occurrences.

In fact, crash reporting sometimes even uses the term "accident" when there is a clear intention, and the incident is neither unplanned nor unforeseen, such as in those tragic cases where a driver has purposefully run down a cyclist or pedestrian. Those are certainly no accident.

The bill proposes the word "crash." Unlike "accident," "crash" implies nothing about the humans involved. It doesn't suggest that they had no control, but neither does it insinuate that they did. It says nothing about whether the incident was foreseen or not, or foreseeable or not. Vehicles collided; the technical term for this is a "crash." Crashes can be major or minor; they can be entirely happenstance with no blame or they can even be intentional.

"Crash" speaks to the physical event that took place, whereas "accident" speaks to the circumstances. Since exchanging of insurance information, police reports, and the other subjects with which Maryland law concerns itself take place before most facts have been established, using a neutral term like "crash" is the appropriate course of action.

Other jurisdictions have established "neutral language policies" that go beyond this bill. In addition to using neutral terms in laws, some policies ask police to use "crash" in place of "accident" in incident reports and public statements, for example. That would be a good step to take as well, though this bill is a good start. Kudos to Carr and Bronrott for sponsoring this legislation.


Do we need a name for anti-bike-ism?

Bicycle advocates were surprised and disappointed that Virginia legislators, particularly Republicans, defeated a seemingly innocuous measure to change Virginia's standard for drivers passing cyclists from 2 to 3 feet, to match the practice in most states.

Photo by velobry.

Based on their summary, the bill mainly didn't go down to defeat because legislators thought 2 feet was better. Rather, they perceived cyclists as a group not deserving of any added protections from the law.

Here are some arguments the Virginia Bicycling Federation reported hearing from legislators at the hearing:

  • "Bicyclists are often law breakers, unworthy of any added protection under the law."
  • "Bicyclists are inconsiderate when they delay drivers from getting to their destinations, especially in narrow lanes or roads."
  • "Bicyclists should police themselves before coming in asking for added legal protections."
  • "A 3 ft. passing rule would inconvenience and hazard motorists by requiring them to move into the adjacent or oncoming travel lanes."

Only the last item is actually about the passing distance itself. But even with a 2-foot rule, drivers still have to either get into the adjacent lane, or at least move substantially enough into that lane that they might as well move in entirely.

Many drivers think they can or should pass cyclists by squeezing through in the same lane. That's dangerous and illegal in most places. To pass safely, a driver needs enough room to move over to the adjacent lane, at least temporarily.

More worrisome is the attitude which we hear all the time from letter writers to local newspapers, talking heads, blog commenters, and even legislators, that bicyclists are lawless hoodlums not deserving of any protection from the law.

Yes, some cyclists break laws, and some cyclists ride very recklessly. Of course, many motorists break laws too, like speeding, not stopping at stop signs, not yielding to pedestrians, driving in bike lanes, assaulting each other, pedestrians, and cyclists, yelling at police officers, and more.

That doesn't excuse cyclist misbehavior, but it's also totally unfair to blame all cyclists for the dangerous actions of a few or the mildly illegal actions of many when drivers do the same thing. Most drivers generally act respectfully but do break laws in small ways like speeding, and a few drivers are really bad. Same for cyclists.

When a majority builds up and expresses incorrect and biased attitudes about a minority group, we call that out. If white people say that black people don't deserve the same rights or respect, we call that racism. If men say that women don't deserve the same rights or respect, we call that sexism. If straight people say that gay people don't deserve the same rights or respect, we call that homophobia.

This anti-cyclist attitude needs a name, too. These Virginia legislators aren't just misinformed and pigheaded, they're also cyclist-ist. Or something. I haven't seen a good name for this prejudice. Have you? Any ideas?

Update: Racism, sexism, etc. are of course far worse than cyclist hatred, and I don't mean to mean that oppressed cyclists are being mistreated as badly as ethnic groups once were and often still are. However, that doesn't make this attitude not a form of prejudice, and one worthy of being named and criticized, even if it's lower on the scale of prejudices than some.


Rail implicated falsely by reportersí use of active voice

Writers and commenters here at Greater Greater Washington frequently note the onset of the windshield perspective in reporters, columnists, and other bloggers. In news stories, drivers are frequently left out in favor of their car, which seems to have been the sole party in the accident. Recently, I've also noticed a frequent misleading use of verbs or the active voice to seemingly implicate the train in a rail-car or rail-pedestrian collision. David has written about the use of the passive voice in the media, and makes several good points.

Photo by the author.

The most egregious case of this I've seen appeared in the Chicago Tribune over the summer. In the wake of a tragic accident, their story's headline screamed: "Amtrak train rams car, killing Joliet husband and wife." Reading the article, however, one discovers that the couple made an illegal right turn in front of the northbound Texas Eagle, which was traveling about 60 mph. The Amtrak driver had no chance to stop, yet some reporter thinks he's guilty of "ramming." The Tribune article is no longer available. Here's a link to WGN Radio's article.

The Amtrak engineer was not at fault. Police report that the crossing gates and lights were working. In all likelihood, this was a tragic case of driver error. The road which the car was on is parallel to the tracks. At a signal, the sixty-four year old driver turned right onto a street crossing the tracks. She did so in violation of a sign which lights up when a train is approching prohibiting right turns. It is likely she was paying attention to the regular through-movement signal, which was green.

But the Tribune's headline was rather inflammatory. The train didn't ram the vehicle. It was just traveling along the tracks when a vehicle started to cross in front of it. Trains take time to stop. A more appropriate headline might have been "Driver turns in front of train, two killed." Consider the Sun-Times' article title, "At least one killed in train vs. car accident." Or that of WGN News, "Two people killed when Amtrak train hits car."

This is not, unfortunately, a first for the Tribune. In a search of their archives, I unearthed two other articles where a train "rammed" a vehicle which should not have been on the tracks. In one 1999 incident, a driver drove around the crossing gates to beat a commuter train, which "rammed" his car. Earlier, in 1988, a twenty year old driver, trying to beat the train in Morton Grove was "rammed" by an Amtrak train.

There is, of course, no mention in the article about the engineer. He or she will likely suffer greatly from knowing that he or she was behnind the throttle of a locomotive that killed two. The San Jose Mercury News recently delved into the topic of the trauma suffered by Caltrain engineers after collisions (h/t TOW).

Unfortunately, this is not isolated to the Chicago Tribune. Seattle recently opened their first light rail line. During construction, some vocal opponents decried the "dangerous" situation that Link would create in the city. So shortly after opening, I was disappointed to read this headline "Light-rail train hits, kills pedestrian." In this case, while all the verbs are correct, one of the nouns isn't. The struck person was not a pedestrian, but a person committing suicide-by-transit. Still the headline seems to place the blame on 'dangerous' Link.

The most common misleading use of grammar is to give the train the active voice in a headline. Despite the fact that many crashes are caused by impatient or imprudent drivers, trains often do the "striking" while autos and pedestrians are "struck". Technically this is correct, the train does often hit the person or vehicle on the track, but the use of passive voice for the auto or pedestrian alleviates the responsibility of the "object", placing it instead on the subject.

Consider these two headlines from different places. The first, from, uses the active voice, "Train kills man in Woodburn as he tries to cross tracks." Here, the train does the action to the pedestrian, who according to witnesses, misjudged the speed of the train when he tried to beat it. Alternatively, the Chicago Sun-Times reports a "Man struck fatally by freight train on West Side." In the latter case, the implication of guilt is not put on either party.

Using the right verbiage in news articles is important because the way the press treats these stories affects the way the public views rail and transit projects. If communities look at trains as dangerous (and if they go around ramming cars at random, they probably are dangerous), they will be more likley to fight them. But also by taking responsibility away from the car driver, other motorists don't see the danger involved in trying to beat the train.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City