Thursday, February 08, 2007

Barely Conscious*

Lately there’s been a dreadfully appalling misuse of a word that’s crept into the popular consciousness: conscious. Perhaps it’s foolish to attempt to redirect the rising tide of bad grammar; today’s phrase-mangling misusage is often, after all, tomorrow’s hip phrase to drop at parties. But we must make a stand, a last surge, if you will, to win this war before “conscious” becomes the new “quality.” As in “That book has quality.” Yes, but what kind of quality? Good? Bad? Neither? Sideways? It’s similar to how people employ the word “poetic” to mean “good poetry” (“Her jump shot was poetic”). Just because something is termed poetic — which is, after all, merely a form of expression — doesn’t mean that it’s inherently good poetry.

Let’s examine the recent trend of using the word “conscious” in sentences such as “He’s a conscious rapper.” The speaker appears to mean that the rapper is of a higher consciousness, perhaps more socially evolved or politically aware than others. The message could also be that the rapper is conscious of the world around him, that he’s focused and living in the moment. (It seems to imply — at least subconsciously — that the rapper is operating from his subconscious.) Maybe the speaker is actually opining that the musician has a conscience of some sort. However, what he’s literally saying is that the rapper is awake, which is hardly remarkable in itself (apart from the amount of chronic said rapper might have smoked). Yes, one can be a “conscious” rapper, but is he of a higher or lower consciousness? A rapper with a conscience doesn’t suddenly become a conscious rapper — these are two different words and meanings. (Though a rapper with a conscience should presumably be conscious, at least part of the time, to fight the power.) It must be noted that there isn’t yet a clear, formal consensus on whether it is desirable to even possess a conscience. Some rappers are now celebrated for having a conscience, and yet pro-basketball star Kobe Bryant claims that he was actually praising the shot selection of Gilbert Arenas when he stated that Arenas did not have a conscience. (Of course, style arbiter Bryant often uses words in contradictory, perhaps even deceptive, ways, such as when he insisted that he didn’t mean to strike Manu Ginobili in the face during a wildly theatrical follow-through in attempting to draw a foul from Ginobili.)

Fact is, this new “conscious” fad is a clumsy conflating of the unconflatable. (Er, is “unconflatable” a word? Perhaps to mean “to be against the contrary inflating of life rafts, balloons and such things,” among other possibilities? Only time — and popular misusage — will tell. But this might be inventing a word, as opposed to misusing a perfectly understandable word like “conscious,” a much more serious crime.)

Are you still conscious?

—Falling James

*Revised at 6:30 p.m., Thurs., Feb. 8

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