Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Executive order

Words can sound good or bad not just in the sense of their auditory quality but also in their associational impact. By the latter I mean the emotional feeling created by that word, or at least one meaning of the word.  Of course, most words are neutral in themselves but life experiences shade the word. For example, a book is stack of papers bound together but a person’s experience may make render the association either positive, a wonderful tranquil experience, or negative, the objects that made my life at school miserable.  In some cases, even without first experience, the mere picturing of the word creates negative impressions. For instance, almost none of us have witnessed an amputation but the image of saw and lots of blood makes the process rather scary and unpleasant.

An interesting example of the associational complexity is the word execute.  For the average person, this word brings up the image of person standing against the wall or sitting in an electric chair, reinforced by repeated images in movies and TV documentaries (Woody Allen’s Love and Death and The Green Mile immediately come to mind). Even the most unsophisticated understand that execution is a once in a lifetime experience of a particularly bad type. Thus, execution has gotten itself a bad name.

Law has reinforced this attitude, at least for some people.  To execute a judgment means to carry it out, as in placing a lien on a bank account or repossessing a car or house.  For the recipient, it is clearly a traumatic experience even if not entirely unexpected at the time. Combined with the word’s first context, execution of a court order sounds like a death sentence.  For that reason, in England and the United States but not France, it is called enforcement. As Hannah Arendt explained in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was psychologically much easier to carry out the final settlement than murder.

Curiously, if the context is clear enough and other words are added, execution becomes much more palatable: Sports teams must execute the coach’s plan to succeed; it is the job of the President to execute the law; all persons are entitled to execute their right of attorney.  Most people do not grimace when hearing such phrases since death is far from their thoughts when hearing them.

So, alas, a rose is not always a rose; sometimes it is a thorn bush either due to a bee sting or possibly an allergy to roses. The why of our emotional associations to words is complex but nobody can deny their existence.

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