The Meaning of Words

Words have meaning. That meaning can change either over time or by deliberate interference in the language by internal or external forces. Words that change meaning, or appear and disappear over time aren’t really a problem. That’s a fairly organic process. But when the change is introduced on purpose, that’s when we run into trouble. Does it matter when words change meaning? Does it matter if activists or the powers that be determine that certain words are no longer accepted for use in polite society? I’m not talking about derogatory words or slurs, but rather ordinary words. Words like riot or protest or insurrection…

Yes. Yes, it does. Words create images, sometimes precise, sometimes general. Words push and pull emotions out of your audience. Words are important. In 1984, Newspeak is deliberately designed to constrain language and reduce thought. Nuanced words are removed, only simplistic words are used. The goal is to reduce the ability of citizens to think and thus to object and disobey the Party. When riots become “fiery but peaceful protests” that’s the direction we’re headed.

Sarah Hoyt had a post yesterday regarding the use of style sheets. Style sheets are things used by publishers to ensure that all their books look the same and are formatted the same. I am very familiar with style sheets because every single academic journal has their own. And God help you if you dare to submit an article to a journal and you’ve missed a part of the style sheet.

Style sheets ensure conformity. And in the sense of writing and word use and speaking, conformity means your words and style are exactly the same as all other words and styles and convey exactly the same meaning. There is no more nuance. The Associated Press has been madly updating and changing its stylebook to conform to the most recent trendy ideas. They discourage the use of words like “riot” in favor of “unrest”. This is what Orwell was trying to warn about in 1984. This is why John Adams, back in the 18th century, in the quote below told us not to be intimidated by those who would tell us what we can and cannot write, say, and think:

“Be not intimidated, therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom, whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice.” — John Adams

Adams was right. When the words “politeness”, “delicacy”, or “decency” are used to guilt, intimidate, or terrorize then they are simply different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice. Don’t fall for the gambit. Retain your sense of self and refuse to play the games of little bullies and sociopaths.

Don’t be afraid to call something by its proper name. If a popularly espoused theory on human behavior, let’s call it Critical Race Theory, is held up as the only proper framing for human relationships, but you recognize that it actually does the opposite of what it espouses…call it what it is…Critical Racist Theory. Put aside your delicacy, put aside your worry about what “decent” people will think of you. Lying about something (other than your friend’s surprise party) is not polite, nor is it decent.

Americans are fundamentally decent people. We don’t like to, and try to avoid, deliberately offending people. We love to help out (we are the most charitable nation on Earth – you can look it up). We’re (mostly) polite in our public interactions. So, when somebody claims to be offended by something we said or did, we are quick to try to fix the situation. We strive to remember not to do or say whatever it was again, lest we be accused of deliberately giving offense this time.

All of that gets used against us. Words that became “politically correct” to use or not use were among the first shots fired in the culture war we are currently immersed in. As an example, I remember when “handicapped” was the target. Activists claimed that “differently abled” or the risible “handicapable” (no, that wasn’t made up by South Park. Timmeh!) were much less offensive. A friend of mine who was born with spina bifida and is in a wheelchair practically laughed himself sick over that.

Because I was curious, I went and looked up the etymology of the word “handicap”. It started with a betting game in the 17th century and then moved on to horse-racing (where there’s a lot of betting, so that makes perfect sense). It started as a name for a betting game, “hand in cap”. Which, as humans are wont to do, got shortened to “handicap.” The game, and the later application of the term to horse-racing meant the same thing…to place at a disadvantage. Or if you want to put a positive spin on things – to level the playing field. So horses who are faster would carry more weight and vice versa.

So, yes, people with a physical or mental disability are handicapped; they are at a disadvantage relative to those without the same physical disability. However, using the word “handicap” to describe a condition does not mean that the person is incapable of enjoying life, having friends, a spouse, children, a job, etc. Yes, employers have in the past denied employment, but that’s due to misunderstanding or outright prejudice. It has nothing to do with the use of the word. The word describes the individual (or horse) as being at a disadvantage relative to others. That is all. The inability to walk is a definite disadvantage. The word “handicapped” is general descriptor, nothing more, of the condition of that person.  

I used to run an exercise with my students about word usage and what to look for. And, once you start looking you have a hard time stopping.

I started with this one: what’s the difference between an “interest group” and “special interests”? The answer is nothing. There is no difference. The difference appears in the intended goal of the speaker or writer. “Interest group” is used when the goals of the group are viewed as benign (who doesn’t want to save the whales? Or the planet? I tell the sidewalk activists that I’m aiming to live on a city-planet like Coruscant, but that’s a whole other story). But a “special interest” group is eeeebbiilll. They’re out to suborn the system. They want to kill ALL the whales and destroy the planet! In reality, the “special interest” group simply has goals you don’t aspire to and maybe even disagree with. But if somebody tells you that the “Make Coruscant Great Again” group is a special interest group, you just know they’re up to no good. Oh, wait. They’re just an interest group? Oh. Okay. Eh. Not really my thing, but that’s fine.

The next question I asked my students was to tell me the difference between a war chief and a clan leader (this one came from the Somalia mess where the same individual was described as a war chief one week and a clan leader the next). Again, no difference in terms of the individual and his (because it’s almost always his) rank or status within the group/clan. The choice of term depended on whether said individual was with us or against us.

So what does all this have to do with Adams talking about politeness, delicacy, and decency as covers for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice?

Don’t fall for the hypocrisy. Don’t change your wording because somebody is offended (assuming you are not being deliberately offensive…and by that I mean knowingly calling names, as opposed to somebody else’s definition of deliberately offensive, like when you use a pronoun that seems obvious from physical appearance, but its not the pronoun they were beaming at you via telepathy). Don’t use a word that means the opposite of what you’re trying to say just because you’re worried somebody might be offended. Don’t be a hypocrite to satisfy somebody else.

Don’t walk on eggshells around people you don’t even know. Don’t be so delicate in your words and actions (again, context matters, and you do know what I’m talking about so stop picking nits). Do you really care what perfect strangers think about you? Unless you’re spilling family or national secrets, don’t worry about somebody overhearing you and getting offended (but do remember to use your inside voice, please. Nobody needs to hear about those hemorrhoids.) Don’t encourage the chicanery (which means nitpicking, being tricky, or quibbling. So calling a riot “fiery but peaceful” is engaging in hypocritical chicanery).

And, finally, don’t be a coward. Don’t let the bullies win. Because once you give them an inch, they’ll take the mile and keep on going. And before you know it, your life is constrained in ways you never imagined, and you’re living in a totalitarian state. Adams was exactly right. Be not intimidated and do not allow yourself to be wheedled out of your liberties in the name of being nice.

It’s not worth it. They’ll still hate you in the end.

Churchill had the best response. “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Stand up for something.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

9 Replies to “The Meaning of Words”

  1. Good column, however the quote is not from Winston Churchill. The quote is a modernized variation of a passage Hugo wrote in his 1845 essay, Villemain:

    “You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”

  2. But where do dictionaries come from if not from the unbiased assemblage of words by people with curiosity and a historical perspective?
    Those people are either hunkered in the bunker or have been co-opted by the progressive bright lights and big city. Another unguarded fortress has been breached.

  3. If you’re going to write an article on the meaning of words, you need to be extra careful to ensure you don’t make any mistakes.

    “Style sheets insure conformity.”

    No, they, ‘ensure’ conformity. You might want to fix that!

  4. Wow. I have been thinking about this for a long time. My current campaign is against the use of “shenanigan” to describe what happened in the November election. Words convey thoughts and if the words are wrong the thoughts are wrong.

  5. I happened to learn today that in Croatian, “woman” and “wife” are the same word. English has more words by far than any ither language, allowing for both nuanced thought and expression. May it always be thus.

  6. This article reminded me of a couple of disparate points. First is the singular virtue of dictionaries that are printed in permanent ink on physical paper and include the historical etymologies of each word. Hail the OED. The other is an exercise I set myself from time to time to express in plain accurate English thoughts that are true, but which are as offensive as possible to the politically correct. When was the last time you used the word Negress?

  7. Style sheet, all on the same page.

    I’ve long lamented the disappearance of a classical education for that reason.

    Back in the day an educated person, versed in the classics, even those who matriculated and following, admit to little Latin and less Greek, shared a common philosophical and linguistic bond allowing the sharing of ideas, similes and metaphors with little or no misunderstanding.

    Shucky darn, if one includes “Out, damned spot! out” in a sentence today most young folks, sadly many college graduates, will think one’s referring to a dog.

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