Sunday, August 15, 2010

def·i·ni·tion: a statement of the meaning of a word

 "How do you know the fella what wrote the readin' wrote the readin' right?"  Festus Hagin

"Besides, if language must vary, like fashions... we must have our standard dictionaries republished, with the fashionable pronunciation... otherwise a gentleman in the country will become intolerably vulgar, by not being in a situation to adopt the fashion of the day. ...

"The new editions of them will supersede the old, and we shall have our pronunciation to re-learn, with the polite alterations, which are generally corruptions.

"Such are the consequences of attempting to make a local practice the standard of language in a nation. The attempt must keep the language in perpetual fluctuation, and the learner in uncertainty."
Noah Webster

 When Nicolas was very young, he scared me one day when I looked out to see him standing very close to a car stopped in the street, talking to its driver. Although the incident proved harmless, I scolded Nicolas, asking him "Haven't we told you never to talk to strangers?" His intelligent 4 year old reply "But that wasn't a stranger - that was just somebody I didn't know." Having only heard the word "stranger" used in a negative context by both the people in his life and in TV ads and shows, Nicolas had surmised that a stranger was not just someone he didn't know but specifically a scary looking person he didn't know.

So, we taught him the correct meaning of the word, and while he continued to be an outgoing kid, he was better prepared for life knowing that sometimes danger can come in attractive packages - and that sometimes words don't mean what one thinks they mean.

Between Noah Webster's definitive American Dictionary, and the Oxford Unabridged, the English language was once well served by printed dictionaries that provided a universally accepted standard for word usage and interpretation.

When it comes to words and their standard, accepted meanings, we can only make sense to each other if we all use the word to mean the same thing. And when a person or population doesn't know the standard definition or established word, the answer is not to change the word but to educate the person and the population, using established standards, so that they are then on an equal footing with us in use and understanding of the word.

To change the meaning to the incorrect one, or to stop using the word and switch to a different one robs the unknowing person and the population as a whole of clarity and understanding, perpetuates misunderstanding, and denies everyone the comprehension to debate equally with those who do use the word or phrase in its traditional sense.

If it seems Americans aren't able to reason together any more, it's not only differences of opinion but mostly due to growing differences in language. Thanks to misappropriation of words and their meanings by the Marketing and Influence industries, we've probably already lost even the word "reality". Other words that have been fully co-opted to our detriment just in the past 20 years include color words ("pink", "green"), and "integration" (now used to signal defined separation within "multiculturalism", where once it was fully understood by all with its true meaning of assimilation into a democratic union).

Rationality itself understands the need for a constant standard. The presence of instantly edited and impossibly condensed online dictionaries adds to the confusion. I once thought we'd no longer need the great old OED, Abridged, but now I am looking for another copy. Sometimes young people for whom English is their second language have a more effective vocabulary, and more easily understand my meaning, in part because they were taught from traditional source materials. Other times, I have found myself reading a resume from a well educated, sharp candidate and setting it aside because it was so laden with neologisms and buzz words that it failed to convey any coherent thought.

This trend has been growing over the past 20 years or so, with corporations setting out their own internal writing guidelines and news media adopting new style books that specify the actual words a reporter may use when reporting on a particular topic. Even small organizations like local school districts have added a Communications and PR branch to their permanent administrative payrolls.

Frequently, particularly in controversial matters, experts from one point of view may coin a new, "persuasive" definition for an established, well-understood word and begin a campaign in which they quietly use it with a new and different intention - to generate one meaning among "insiders" and deliberately foster misunderstanding among opponents. At the same time, academics may also manufacture objectionable connotations for the synonym(s) most commonly used by their opponents, not only limiting speech and pressuring English speakers to stop using a word in its legitimate context but also thereby twisting historical texts without need for rewrite as students are increasingly exposed only to the idea of the "bad" definition as the only possible interpretation.

We see this misappropriation of standard English words in many of the calls for "civility" - which itself has been co-opted to describe a peculiar system of "anger management" intervention rather than the full historical breadth of meaning - as these calls claim new objections to specific traditional words they want deleted from opponents' lexicon, yet do not establish a process that allows dissenters to impose similar restrictions on their own vocabulary. In traditional discourse, formats for debate are well established and the parties work together mutually to agree on parameters that provide each with equal footing. In traditionally civil discourse, even on topics that generate much emotion the debaters can clarify the nuance of the terms they use without attack, and agreement on specific words is unnecessary outside limitations on introduction of particular topics.

Clear communication between people on all sides of any issue requires, as a basis, that first people share a common language with long established rules of use familiar to all parties - young and old, rural and urban, self-made and ivy league, industrial and technological - and in which the words have standard definitions developed over time. Until very recently, many textbooks had a useful life of several years before edits were needed - dictionaries from my grandmother's time are still accurate. Webster's Bluebacked Speller was used for more than 100 years in nearly every school in the young United States.

Those of traditional bent overall tend not to change existing language much except where necessary for inventions or adoptions. The very word "conservative" means "to conserve, to save, to preserve". Instead, they can speak in broad vocabularies rich with historic references and the shared experience of readers. Conservatives and inventors also coin brand new, specific words or phrases for those situations or items which are truly new (as opposed to just seeming new to the inexperienced).

It seems to be nearly always those of non-traditional views who give new meanings to old words, change connotations from bad to good or good to bad, and create new words for old ideas or situations. Of course, people holding non-traditional views may be found among both major political parties, Republicans as well as Democrats: [PDF file].

If we really want to be able to sit down and talk - or stand up and debate - and really move toward understanding each other, a great place to start would be by calling things by their real names again in all of our conversation both internal and external, with supporters as well as dissenters, using the appropriate traditional professional jargon and formal vocabulary when speaking or writing, and not adopting euphemisms, neologisms or "redefinitions" to replace the words used over long history.

Try to make a habit of paying attention to the repeated words when we hear or read about things. Once your ear is attuned to flagging those buzzwords, you'll find yourself naturally becoming a little more interested in figuring out which words are deliberately not being used. And it is those words that are deliberately not said which hold the key to understanding the intentions of the speaker.

Here are some interesting lists of words and phrases that politicians of both stripes have either adopted or decried in effort to "frame the debate". As you read through them, notice which have been in use the longest, and why a new or different word is being pushed instead.

  1. The Atlantic May 2010
  2. Der Spiegel March 2009
  3. The Weekly Standard April 2010
  4. Newspeak Dictionary
  5. Ed Driscoll > The Daily Telegraph May 2010
  6. The Washington Post February 2010
  7. undated article
  8. Middle East Forum May 2009
  9. Lake Superior State University 2010
  10. Skookum Pete undated
  11. Washington Post June 2010
  12. The Underground Grammarian 2000
Suffice to say that generating new meanings for old words, or new words for old crimes, it is an old, old trick. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss - or not really as the case may be. As Samuel Adams wrote in 1776: "How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain Meaning of Words!"

Forget a "new Reagan" - we need a new Noah Webster:

"The two points therefore, which I conceive to be the basis of a standard in speaking, are these; universal undisputed practice, and the principle of analogy. Universal practice is generally, perhaps always, a rule of propriety; and in disputed points, where people differ in opinion and practice, analogy should always decide the controversy."

"Even supposing that a number of republics, kingdoms or empires, should within a century arise and divide this vast territory; still the subjects of all will speak the same language, and the consequence of this uniformity will be an intimacy of social intercourse hitherto unknown, and a boundless diffusion of knowledge."

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