Word Power

The favoured instrument of communication since time immemorial is the word, be it spoken, written, drawn or conveyed by signs and gestures. While body language accounts for nearly three quarters of our communicative ability, and we all know the famous phrase that a single picture speaks a thousand words, we cannot live without words. Without words we could not exercise the higher orders of the mind. But today, we have a problem: for all the ubiquity of words with the rise of the internet, we seem to have forgotten their purpose in communication, and neglected to understand their meanings, and thus have come to misuse them.

Consider this – words have meaning, and we use that meaning to communicate ideas and visions and perspectives. All of the memes, the philosophical, psychological, sociological, theological and scientific ideas that form the collected mass of human knowledge and thought, are communicated primarily by words. Our words are imperfect – of this, there can be no doubt. If they were perfect, we would only need one word. So we string together words to convey an image of an event: the boy bit the dog. “The boy” conveys an image of a male child; “the dog” is an animal we are all familiar with; “bit” tells us what the boy did to the dog and when he did it. In that single sentence of five words, I have conveyed a scenario into your mind, one weird and wonderful for its very peculiarity. In this image, I convey a historical event.

Another example we can draw from the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning” tells us when this event occurred, “God” denotes the actor, “created” was the action, and “the heavens and the earth” were the result. This image conveys two perspectives – one is broadly historical, that God created everything; the other is broadly theological, that God transcends and exists outside of creation.

Perhaps another, in the language of mathematics. E=mc2 is perhaps the most famous physical equation, known even to small children. What does it say? That energy (E) and mass (m) are equivalent in proportion to the square of the speed of light (c). This conveys a scientific image, and with the recent work at the LHC, we might now be able to go both ways – not just deriving energy from fusion and fission, but creating matter as we desire. But I digress.

One can see then the power of language and the symbols and words that we use to communicate, even if that language is mathematics. And you see how the meaning of the words is so necessary to understanding their arrangement. Only by understanding the words in the sentence might we understand what the sentence is trying to convey. Certainly, it can be boring. But it can also be extremely exciting. Take, for instance, a sentence that you didn’t understand, but which experience and time have granted you insight into. If you’re anything like me, that insight is profoundly gratifying and exciting, and it can only come when we actually understand the words being used.

But today we have an unfortunate habit of misusing words. Particularly, we use words that do not accurately describe what we are trying to convey and so we use language imprecisely.

Now, this is not to be  considered some screed against the natural evolution of language. The word quiz, for instance, referring to a short test of an intellectual nature, started out (if legend is to be believed) as London graffiti, which was the talk of the taverns as everyone tried to guess what it actually meant. Possible etymologies aside, this story is widely held to be the origin of its modern widespread use.

A fuller example of this is the word nice. Nice comes to us ultimately from Latin, via French and Middle English, with the root ultimately being ne scire. Scire may already be familiar to you, and is the root of the modern English word science. Scire, in Latin, means knowledge, usually with connotations of practical importance; what one might call today common sense. Therefore, ne scire must therefore mean no knowledge, as the negative ne implies (and if you haven’t already noticed, look at the first two letters of negative to get a hint for its meaning). Ne scire then becomes nescius, meaning ignorant. Allow two thousand years of contraction and passage through half a continent, and you get nice.

But we don’t often use nice to mean ignorant today. We use it to mean pleasant, generous, kind and other such positive traits. How did this come to be so?

Miss Ann Barnhardt rightly traces the origins of the modernuse in that nice was used to describesomeone who was agreeable by virtue of their ignorance. Though largely archaic and discarded, this understanding of nice to mean ignorant, but agreeable is still implicitly understood. “That’s nice dear” is almost universally recognised as an answer of the ignorant, uncaring and inattentive. This change, however, is not as recent as Miss Barnhardt presumes, as G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, particularly its introduction, provides ample proof that this had largely become common currency in Mr Chesterton’s youth in the latter part of the 19th Century.

Thus, quiz and nice can easily be considered as some of the natural accretions and changes in language that occur over time as languages change and develop. I could produce a thousand more examples, falling over myself in semantics and turn a lifetime’s worth of habits of speech on their head in a day. But this is more about linguistic abuse, and believe me, it is happening.

Consider the word gay, originally meaning happy and carefree. A hundred years ago, a playing child could have been described as gay and it would have been correctly understood in that original meaning. Today, it is synonymous with homosexual, having been seized by the homosexuals as a self-descriptive banner for their exclusive use, and its original meaning is almost completely lost under a torrent of sexual innuendo and insult. Not only that, but the exclusivity was deliberately designed to normalise homosexuality, though alas, as Cardinal Pell says, the poor fellows aren’t actually gay in the original sense; they’re just as miserable as the rest of us.

This is not something that is peculiar to homosexuals though – Richard Dawkins has been suggesting that atheists use the self-appellation bright to demonstrate their enlightenment and intelligence, and has responded to criticism by suggesting that theists and other such believers should take up the self-appellation super, to denote their belief in the supernatural. I react to such a suggestion as follows:

It is this misuse of gay and the potential misuse of bright and super that worries me. It leaves me wondering what precisely is wrong with the terms homosexual, atheist, and theist, all of which are perfectly descriptive of the beliefs of the people they are used to describe. I can find no problem with them off the top of my head, and so must conclude nothing to be wrong with the words themselves. Rather, it seems that there is an attempt afoot in the English speaking world to present things in a manner that, technically speaking, is not descriptive.

Allow me to explain. All societies are based upon a fundamental cosmological perspective which underpins that society’s views of humanity, the universe, and the forces at work in both. In the West, this is largely provided by Christianity, however consciously or unconsciously it is acknowledged. For over fifteen hundred years, Christianity has provided the cosmological perspective that has underpinned the entirety of the West and its success, including the development of science, equality before the law, the value of education, among many more, even if said philosophies do at times seem to conflict with Christianity.

Over the past half-century however, there has been an almost unprecedented falling-away of almost the entire society from Christian morality, and as the morality has passed, so too have other elements whose success was derived from the Christian perspective waned and declined, including education in the face of equality, equality of the law in the face of multiculturalism and relativism, and much else besides. However, in spite of this passage, the cultural influence of Christianity is deeply rooted in the Western psyche. The third ring of the phone is ripped straight from the Resurrection (which is only the most famous of many other examples). When dealing with non-Christian faiths, we very often reduce them to Christian tropes – the god of the dead takes the role of Satan, the king of the gods is held as God, and it all goes on.

And so too, it can be said that the morality is still there, just beneath the surface. My previous post on coincidences and conspiracies demonstrates an observation of this lingering sense in ourselves, as though we know there is a spiritual realm, even when no one teaches us anything about it. Catholics term this, in the moral sense, as the Natural Law, and it is this that, though on the surface abandoned, still lies as a steady undercurrent which cannot be ignored, and against which no ship can sail.

If this is indeed the case, as I believe it to be, then we can see that the need for homosexuals, atheists and the like to justify their behaviour must lead them either to self-honesty, in which they accept that these things feel a forced and unnatural, which contains in itself the seeds of change, or to self-deception, whereby they label, justify and excuse everything they can. Can theft be justified? Of course – just call it redistribution of wealth and watch the support swell. Can murder be justified? Sure – a foetus isn’t really a human you know, and neither are newborns or vegetables, and besides, some people might want to die to escape the pain, which after all is something we have a right to not endure. What about sex with whomever I want? Oh sure, if you love them.

These are actual arguments that are being made today. Theft and murder are justified by the use of other terms. As I said earlier, sodomy seeks to be normalised by the appropriation of gay, and now Dawkins wants atheists to join the fun with bright (though thankfully, many atheists are responding with an admirable sense of intellectual honesty).

Ultimately, this comes back to a failure to understand the very nature of our humanity. Those who claim to love someone are also, sadly, very fast to leave them for someone else, no more in their mind than a broken toy. It’s almost perverse that the language of rights which is derived from our inherent dignity is being used to demean that very same dignity, and we say it is our right to look at others not as people of inherent dignity with all the same rights as us, but rather as an apparatus to be used and discarded at our pleasure, or a source of money for our own enrichment.  It is a disgusting view, and one which we can only justify through lies and ignorance.

That is my issue with this – we are lying, to others, but most grievously to ourselves. My intent here is to expose this deception of self into which we, as a society, have fallen in our rush to abandon Christianity. We lie in our very words, in the way that we communicate, and the lie has been so effectively inculcated that it is almost unconscious. I do not grieve for the changes that naturally occur in language – all things must eventually pass, and so too English shall one day pass into another language. But I am aggrieved by our lies, and the corruption that results in this twisting of language, and in frustration, as a broken record, I repeat those famous lines from the cliff-top:

So do not be afraid to describe yourself as you are. Honesty is the virtue of the honourable, and I should rather be arguing with honest and honourable sinners than dishonest peddlers of distortions, whose tricks and turns of language would frustrate me in their iniquity. To aid in this end, I conceived of the word adventures, to explore the origin and etymology of the words we use, to hunt down their meanings and how they have changed over time, and how we might play with them today. For language ought to be a precise instrument, to communicate succinctly and exactly what we mean. Therefore, it is important that we know what the words we use mean, and hold such meanings in common. No word can ever mean what any individual wishes it to mean, because, for all the pride of those who claim such authority, they would only end up recreating, by their own hand, the results of Tower of Babel, and with it, the same disintegration of the bonds of community that the Biblical legend so described.

And I will not have it, for then all the nations our ancestors built, all their legacy of freedom that they bequeathed to us, would be lost as all came crashing down around us. If a meme cannot be communicated, it dies, and so too with the understanding of the cosmos that we in the West possess. And I will not have it. Not ever.

So I shall take up the first duty of the gentleman, and restate the obvious, as many times as need be. Words have meaning, and should be used appropriately, even if it is only to say, “Your boy bit my dog!”

1 comment:

  1. I notice "gay" is also fast becoming a dirty word itself. We talk about "same-sex marriage" and "same-sex couples" now, not "gay marriage" and "gay couples". I know that many disabled people hate being called "people of differing abilities" and the like, insisting that they should be called "disabled" because "disabled" - rightly, in their mind - more appropriately denotes that they are different and not the same as everybody else.