Denver Bar Association
March 2008
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Concerning Concerning - The misuse of words

by Greg Rawlings

When I was a lowly undergrad at CU, back in the early 1980, I had a wonderful Shakespeare professor by the name of Jack Crouch. Professor Crouch was a character’s character, a Falstaffian figure of loud, unruly laughter, and great wit. Of course, anyone who really knows the Bard has something witty to say about pretty much everything. The reason Professor Crouch’s name has popped back into my mind recently has to do with a paper he passed out to us one day in class. The paper concerned the misuse of language, focusing on the word tragedy.

According to the paper, there is a corollary in language to Gresham’s Law, the economic maxim that bad money drives out good. The paper dealt with the constant misuse of the word tragedy to the point that the word had been diluted beyond recognition. Now, it argued, everything bad that happens to anyone or anything is called a tragedy. An RTD bus runs over a crack dealer: tragedy; a child drowns in the pool behind the McMansion: tragedy; dog chases cat up tree, cat scares squirrel, who falls in front of a drunk driver and perishes in a gory flash of fur: tragedy. You get the picture.

In the classic sense, tragedy entails a great figure being brought down by hubris, which means overweening pride. Think King Lear dividing up his kingdom and excluding the one daughter who truly loves him, Cordelia, because she fails to play up to his enormous vanity. So, evil sister number one, Goneril, and evil sister number two, Regan, turn on Lear and drive him, eventually, to madness.

Well I — friends, Romans and countrymen — am being driven to madness by one simple, constantly abused word: concerning. Concerning is defined quite nicely: "relating to, about." It doesn’t get much better than that. For example, I wrote a master’s thesis concerning political leadership in early Civil War Kentucky, 1861-1863. That is a correct usage. Or, last month we all attended a wonderful lecture by William Henderson concerning the creation of fictional characters from real live people. More correct usage of the word.

But there are dark forces about in the world of words. These dark forces, which have slowly but surely crept into our courtrooms and, egad, beyond, have decided that concerning does not mean, well, concerning. Take this sentence, uttered by a probation officer at a revocation hearing: "I find the defendant’s actions to be very concerning." The utter and absolute gall of this woman. And it only gets worse. Soon the virus spread. Within weeks of hearing probation officer number one abuse the word, I heard probation officer number two do it. Within weeks of that dark day, I heard an actual lawyer say she found the "defendant’s failure to abide by the conditions of his deferred judgment very concerning." I about lost it then and there. "Good God," I muttered, not quite under my breath, "buy a freaking dictionary." A buddy of mine used the phrase and I about clawed his eyes out. Then one day, calmly reading an article in the Denver Post, the writer found something "concerning." Are there no editors these days? Are the mass firings at the local papers bringing us to editorials where people find things "concerning?"

It’s obvious that these poor misguided and linguistically challenged souls find certain things "alarming," find that other people’s actions "raise a red flag," find that the moron who doesn’t go to his DV classes should go straight to jail without passing go. What they aren’t finding are these actions to be concerning. Because they are not.

So there, that is my spiel. Now please do me a favor. The next time you hear someone in our court system find something "concerning," throw something at said abuser of our great language, something hard. I promise to bail you out of jail and appear at your attorney regulatory hearing. Honest. There are times in ths life when one must take a stand. And this is one of them.

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