In My Words: Cut back creeping verbal kudzu by pruning the word ‘issue’

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Rosemary Haskell offers a suggestion — prune the word "issue" from your language garden in favor of more precise words that aren't so overused. The column was published by the Greenville Daily Reflector, the Burlington Times-News and other media outlets.

By Rosemary Haskell

I sometimes tell my first-year undergraduate writers that I will order T-shirts or possibly hats emblazoned with the slogan “Death to the Word ‘Issue,’” perhaps in fiery red letters. Occasionally, I write this exhortation in the margins of their papers.

Rosemary Haskell, professor of English

What’s wrong with this very common word? Well, actually, that’s the problem: it is all too common. The word crawls kudzu-like over our sentences, invading our thoughts and speech.

“She has issues,” we used to joke, about a difficult friend. But now, everyone and everything and every situation has or is an “issue.” Climate change issues, along with mental health issues, pandemic issues, inflation issues, security issues, DEI issues: they’re everywhere.

Here, the word appears to mean “problem, difficulty,” both more usefully specific. But issue can also mean “topic, feature,” or even “I disagree,” as in “I take issue with that statement.”

Another dictionary definition of “issue,” almost defunct now is “outcome” or “result.” “What’s the issue?” rather than meaning “What’s the topic, or what’s the problem?” might mean: “What’s the outcome?”

Rivers, we note, issue into the sea. And to die “without issue” is to die without the offspring that might have been “issued into” the world. Dictionaries list other meanings but “problem” or just “topic” are now ubiquitous.

Words with multiple meanings like this one may become sources and drivers of vagueness and confusion, which may be lazy, unintentional or deliberate. What, for example, does it mean to say the following?:

“I have anxiety issues.”
“My cat has litter-box issues.”
“The issue of human rights is on life-support.”
“Climate issues are affecting hurricanes.”

We can write and speak with more useful specificity.

“I suffer from anxiety.”
“My cat refuses to use a litter box.”
“Human rights are endangered.”
“Warmer oceans may affect hurricane formation.”

People wearing my hats and T-shirts will remember that Newspeak, the totalitarian language in George Orwell’s 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” exerted its thought-crushing power by limiting word choice. Fewer words had to cover a greater range of meanings. Nuance is lost, so that –for example—something can be either “good” or “ungood,” but the potentially rebellious “bad” has been suppressed, along with other evaluative nuances. Relying on the Sapir-Whorf linguistic theory, the novel’s rulers (Big Brother and his colleagues) hope Newspeak’s limited vocabulary will prevent the formation of subversive thoughts by depriving people of the words to express or encapsulate them.

Orwell was not a professional linguist, but like others before him, he saw danger in careless word choice and in the lazy adoption of all-too-familiar terms. His 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” satirizes then-popular buzzwords and phrases like today’s “issue.” Orwell argues that the automatic deployment of over-used language has serious political consequences. If we write mechanically, snapping these tired words and phrases into place “like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house,” he says we will become mere spouters of ready-made political orthodoxies, the scripts of the status quo.

“Issue” on its own isn’t likely to be a totalitarian weapon, I have to admit. But there are dangers in its multifoliate richness, which indicates too many meanings, and in its off-the-shelf easy availability, which makes it a meaning-free “filler” word. Both qualities excuse us from the hard work of finding more nuanced and specific expressions and of recognizing those occasions when we simply don’t need a word. When spread through our writing and speech, such features threaten incisive thought and sharp analysis.

In Orwell’s 1945 novel “Animal Farm,” the dominant pigs quickly manipulate the meaning of “equal” to bamboozle the less literate animals. “All animals are equal” from Animal Farm’s founding revolutionary charter, now has a rider: “But some are more equal than others.” One word now has two opposing meanings.

With porcine guile or with mere acquiescent laziness, we enable over-used and multi-meaning words to impede the clear thought we need in a modern democracy, where we must understand the nuances of public discourse. The campaigns of Joe Biden and Donald Trump will display both the careless and the duplicitous use of language in acre-sized quantities. “Issues” of all kinds will run riot through election texts, as will promises to make America great again, to provide well-paying jobs, to tackle gun violence, to preserve individual rights and freedoms of choice, to solve the immigration crisis and to support our allies. Each of these promises is corrupted by the question-begging quality also deplored in Orwell’s “Politics” essay: without further definition, discussion and evidence, they mean everything and nothing.

“We will address health care issues.” Now there’s a campaign promise for the ages. We should all take issue with it so that we’re not too surprised by the issue of the general election in November.

I’ll get those T-shirts printed now.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.