Sunday, September 28, 2008

Using the ab in abuse

More than becoming interchangeable, “use” and “abuse” have even swapped roles, on occasion. My mission now is to reinstate them to their original, opposing places. This is not, I hope, a merely pedantic quest. Rather, my intent is quite concrete – new, useful usages.

How it has all gone so wrong in recent decades is obvious enough: “use” has flown excessively solo and so shouldered too much of a semantic burden, while conversely “abuse” has almost always been over-encumbered by weighty or jargon-y adverbs (or whatever the grammar-y word is).

Exhibit one: the common recriminatory retort at the end of a post-1968 relationship – “You used me!”. Err, no. “Use” in a consensual, adult relationship may not be an approved word in the Official Boomer 1968 Relationship Lexicon (which of course remains a paramount law to this day), but surely it is a reasonably healthy thing to get something out of such a relationship. Or in boomer-speak, to have one’s needs met. In any event, a cry of “You used me!” should always invite the coldly logical reply: “Thanks. At least I didn’t abuse you, because that would have been something BAD!”.

Exhibit two: “[illegal] drug abuse”. Generally, this means “use”, in any quantity. Paradoxically perhaps, “[illegal] drug use” also seems to mean use in any quantity, including to excess or death. In practice however, the speaker will be the message, and so ambiguity in this regard is actually as rare as a junky’s underdose.

Exhibit three: “child sexual abuse” – presumably meaning the bad sort of sex between adults and children. For me, “child sexual use” works just fine. The plainer verb (?) is not only more logical, it also sharpens the point of moral obloquy – of the doer’s simply having their needs met, with no shred of consent or reciprocity. The formulation “[bad] abuse” tends to put the doers and their acts in a category of the inexplicably and/or gratuitously evil, whereas “[bad] use” actually validates the perspective of the done-to, as incidentally seen in Exhibit one’s misuse (with its lazily implied “badness”).

Exhibit four: “elder abuse”. For Kerrist’s sake, “elder/s” is not a noun in common use among (non-Indigenous) Australians. Perhaps it should be, but I can’t see that pairing it up with the heavy-duty A-word is going to popularise its use more generally. “Abuse of the elderly” is not such a mouthful.

The “abuse of X” formulation has its own curiosities, though. “Abuse of power” is both a root catch-all and a specific accusation, although the latter only rarely. In either case, it seems oddly asymmetric with its necessary corollary: the “[good] use of power”. Ministerial/bureaucratic discretion, yes, but hardly ever power. Perhaps that’s because discretion, unlike power, can’t be easily coupled to the A-word.

My chief beef in all of this is to popularise one new coinage – “food abuse”. Note the “[neutral] abuse” formulation, in both its unambiguous, symmetrical opposition to “food use” and the non-gratuitousness of its two barrels. Further, food “use” is self-evidently good, while under- or over-eating are equally self-evidently bad.

My guess is that “food abuse” has so far never caught on because the food doesn’t have perceived feelings in any of this. True, but I reckon that food is somehow a friend, a peer to every one of us. “Friendship abuse” is another jarring formulation, not because it doesn’t happen, but because in a quality friendship, the give and take is ceaseless, and so in “power” terms, murky and unstable. So listen up, fatties and anorexics – stop leaning on your food intake – it’s time for more give and less take.

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