Slippery Words

A few days ago I posted a response to a piece here on Medium, (see article ) thinking that what I said would be so self-evident readers would, upon reflection, go, “Aha, that is true, isn’t it!” Perhaps most did, but a significant number found my proposition so far at odds with their superior weltanschauung that they had to put fingers to keyboards and spew out the scornful admonishments they believed I richly deserved.

Well, I suppose I should have known better. In the first place, the piece was about politics, which is notorious for attracting more heat than light. Plus, the author’s pejorative use of the word “fucking” in the title should have, I now realize, been the ultimate tip-off that this was an emotional minefield best left to those who get off on adrenaline rushes from combat, whether physical or verbal.

Obviously I am a slow learner, because here I go again.

Todd Hannula asserted that those who use the word “socialist” in any other way than that reported by his dictionary (OED, he later informed) were committing an error, and that he needed to correct them lest political discourse devolve into gibberish.

As if it hadn’t already, but I digress.

My response was to assert what every lexicographer I have ever heard from on this subject has said: that dictionaries don’t define words, they only report the way they are currently being used. His quoted “definition” was thus only the best attempt by the OED editors to capture the word’s current meaning, but we might very well see changes in future editions if the word evolved.

How do words evolve? Well, much the same way species evolve: by mutation. As words get used, different people push them into different shades of meaning. Some meanings stick, others don’t; those that stick make it into the next edition, the others get lost and forgotten. My assertion was that if people want to use the word “socialist” in ways other than that reported by the latest OED, it is not only their right to do so, it is in the mainstream of linguistic tradition and nothing to fret about.

This was troubling to some people, and they accused me of, among other things, having the thinking skills of a six-year-old and promoting Orwellian Doublethink. I don’t care to debate my mental age or whether I am a proponent of dystopian worlds, but I do want to help bring some light to the subject of word mutations by offering a few examples during just my short life.

Sensuous: My high school English teacher (back in the ’50s) advised that the word “sensual” had originally meant “relating to the senses”, but it had been co-opted in recent years to become a milder synonym of “erotic”. The word “sensuous”, she explained, had recently been coined to take over the original job of “sensual”. Fast forward to today: “sensuous” is now also being eaten alive by the eroticists. Oh my! We still have “sensate”, but I wouldn’t make any future guarantees about it either.

Notorious and Notoriety: I was taught, again in high school, that “notorious” meant “famous for being bad”, but now I’m starting to see “notorious” as a synonym of “noteworthy” and “notoriety” used for “fame”. The nerve of some people!

Gender: People still get up in arms about the use of “gender” for “sex”, but they need to calm down because it’s a lost cause. In the 50s or 60s you never saw it, but it’s been a long time since I’ve filled out a form that asked for my “sex”; now they all want to know my “gender”. To which, if I were one of the purists, I would reply that I don’t have one because I’m a person, not a pronoun!

Faggot: My fundamentalist Christian parents sent me to a church summer camp, and one of the memorable events was a big nighttime bonfire on the beach where we all stood around holding sticks in our hands. The sticks were called “faggots”, and standing around the bonfire was called a “faggot service”. The routine was we would put our stick in the blaze until it caught fire and then, holding it out in front, stand and tell how wonderful our lives were on account of Jesus and whatnot. After we finished, we would throw the stick on the fire, and this would signal the next person to take a turn, igniting his or her faggot into flames while offering yet another personal account of deliverance from sin and Satan and stuff. Years later I began to hear the word “faggot” referring to homosexuals, and the first such usages also contained the modifier “flaming”, which I understood immediately and intuitively: “Flaming faggot” was a person who flaunted his homosexuality as brazenly as a stick burning in the night. Eventually, the “flaming” died away, and now we’re left with “faggot” and its derivative “fag”. I’d be willing to bet that if they still have bonfires with kids holding sticks and talking about Jesus, they no longer call them “faggot services”.

Gay: While we’re on the subject of homosexuals, you used to be “gay” if you were having fun, especially at a party, but that’s long gone.

Finally, to return to politics, there’s …

Liberal: Okay, this goes back further than my lifetime, but political literature from the 18th and 19th centuries makes it clear that a “liberal” was once a person who advocated for maximum freedom from the oppression of governments. Today, “liberal” has become synonymous with big-government solutions that will benefit the working class vis-à-vis “conservative” that seeks to use big government to benefit big business. Supporting an expansive, invasive government? Regardless of the purpose, that’s the exact opposite of the original meaning of “liberal”! The word “libertarian” was coined to fill the gap, and it’s now anchored to the weight of the Libertarian Party, but some people calling themselves “libertarians” are now gushing support for the autocratic ranting of Donald Trump, so one has to wonder how long it will be before that word dies the same death of meaninglessness as “liberal”.

For those who crave order and neat pigeonholes, how convenient it would be if words could be made to mean the same thing everywhere and for all time! Latin, anyone?

Nomadic writer, realist, voluntaryist, nudist, singer, drummer, harmonica and recorder player, composer, gadfly, runner, troublemaker, survivor so far.

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