Words and the Meaning of Meaning

I cannot begin without a clear note that everything that I state here is my opinion. This piece is nowhere near a scholarly article, and nowhere near a presentation on a well-researched subject. I must also warn that in this post there may be a trace of right-wing bias, which comes naturally from the fact that I, by most standards, lean to the right. But my main thesis is completely apolitical, and it is further my estimate that I could rest my case equally well if I was left-leaning and writing with a left-wing bias. This post is an opinion piece nonetheless, and I am eager to see any well-supported counterarguments.

So let us begin: what does it really mean for a word to really mean something? It may seem like a grossly counterproductive inquiry that only the most detached armchair philosophers can even think about. But in the realm of Morning Walk it is a fundamental question that is the root of many concrete and unresolved dilemmas.

It is the effect of a word’s use that determines the word’s true meaning, if such a concept exists. What a word really means is determined by the impact of the word’s use. Of course, the original question is circular, and perhaps multiple answers to the question are consistent. But the contention is very specific. It is proper to use a given term if and only if the consequence of its use is as close as possible to the intent. The use of the word “football” has a different consequence when used in Britain from when used in the United States; hence it has different meanings in those two countries. The word “gay” would be understood to mean “happy” a half-century ago or more, but to describe oneself as “gay” in the current year yields a different effect. The word “energy” has one meaning in physics and chemistry, another meaning in theology, and a third meaning in common conversation. It is absurd to argue which of these meanings is true; it is only productive to use these words in their proper contexts to produce the desired understanding. In Europe, the word “liberal” refers to free market politics, especially when these policies are denoted with the word “neo-liberalism.” In the realm of United States politics, the word “liberal” is understood to mean “left-leaning” or supportive the Democratic party. In Canada it is even more true, for the party that is explicitly called Liberal adopts many leftist positions. One can argue all day that these policies are illiberal; it does not change the fact that using the word “liberal” in the context of America or Canada refers to the Democratic party and progressive politics. (We will come back to the word “liberal” multiple times in this post.)

So far I have expressed and illustrated a contentious claim without providing much reasoning or evidence. Some may already agree with my positions, and some may even consider it obvious to the point that this article is a waste of digital paper. But people are very diverse. While to some readers this article is aimless tautology, to others it is full of controversial statements that they disagree with. To the latter group my question is: if my definition of meaning is false, which definition is true? What determines whether a word ought to be used if not the impact of its use? What is this real meaning of a word that its users must be loyal to, sacrificing the desired consequence of its use?

The only coherent answer that I have heard is “etymology.” Many will argue that the etymology of a word determines its true meaning, and the etymology of a word should determine when it is ought to be used. Let us call these people etymologists. The problem with etymologists is that their ideas lead to absurdity very quickly. Words continuously change as a language evolves, and worse: when words are adopted into a new language, their meanings change discretely. The word “salsa” means “sauce” in Spanish, but its English equivalent (taken from Spanish) refers to a specific Mexican dip. Similarly, “kielbasa” means “sausage” in Polish, but in English it refers to specifically Polish sausage. This narrowing applies when words are taken from English as well. The Russian word for student is “студент” which sounds very similar to “student.” But it only refers to university students. Using this Russian word when describing a third-grader will create misunderstanding and confusion. But if the source of the word determines its true meaning, it must be wrong to use it in a new way. Are Russians therefore wrong to say that a third-grader is not a student? Should Americans use the words “salsa” and “kielbasa” to mean any sauce and any sausage? The most stubborn of the etymologists will still answer “yes” to these questions, and going further down this path, we come to words like “psychology.” The Greek word responsible for the first half of psychology’s etymology is “psychis” which means “soul.” Should psychology therefore mean the study of the soul rather than the study of the mind? Is the famous “false friend” now a true friend? Should “sensible” now mean “sensitive” because that is what it means in French? The word “soviet” in the Soviet Union’s name comes from the Russian word that means “council” as the Bolsheviks believed that all power should be given to elected councils. This word also means advice, much like “counsel” refers to advice in English and is related to the word “council.” Does the word “soviet” therefore really mean “advice” even in English? The Russian word further breaks down into the first part, which means “with” and the second part which, in its archaic form, can mean agreement. The English word “with” may or may not be a cognate to the latter morpheme, which would make the word Soviet literally mean “with-with.” But it is beside the now belabored point.

There exists also a common sentiment to try to “take back” words that have changed and bring them back to their “true” meaning. In right-wing conservative circles it is a common saying that the left has been using words much more effectively than the right, and that the right needs to learn from these tactics and use them against the left. I claim that it is not the case; in fact, on the contrary, attempting to control the meanings of words is an awful strategy. There are multiple reasons, beginning with the fact that controlling the wind is impossible without superpowers. There are exceptions; for example, blowing up candles. I have, in fact, done this previously in this article, when I re-invented the word “etymologist.” I had the ability to make this denotation for the purpose of this post, because I have full control of it. In fact, I have full control over what you are reading, so long as you keep browsing this article. Blowing up candles is most frequently used in pure mathematics, when new definitions come up ubiquitously. But controlling the wind on a grand scale takes an enormous team effort. Perhaps worst of all, this effort is nearly fruitless. While the left has been controlling the wind, the right has been controlling the sails; and they sailed well. By the time of Ronald Reagan, the term “liberal” was turning into a pejorative. Michael Dukakis famously rejected the label during his election cycle against George H.W. Bush. As soon as the left changed the denotation of the term to their advantage, the connotation changed with it, and it changed quickly. The word “progressive” went the same way, now having a somewhat negative connotation, despite being an artificially positive label. To continue the same trend, the right must not fight for the “true” meaning of words but simply adapt to the wind that the left creates. When the left changes the word “marriage” the right can say “traditional marriage” or “Christian marriage” or even “real marriage.” There is no need to battle for the old definition of the word, when a simple adjustment can reduce the left’s efforts nearly to zero. There have been sentiments on the right to take back the word “liberal.” Yet prime minister Justin Trudeau leads the Liberal Party in Canada; the party overwhelmingly votes in favor of a bill that requires the use of made-up gender pronouns, a bill that is antithetical to the freedom of speech. The etymology of “liberal” stems from a morpheme that refers to freedom. The word’s story now approaches the story of the word “slave” which derives from a Slavic morpheme meaning “glory.” In fact, the English word “glory” derives from the Latin word “gloria” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European term “klowis” meaning “glory.” It is from this Proto-Indo-European word that the word “slave” also derives. Thus not only does “slave” derive from a word that means “glory” but the two English words have the same etymology. While the analogy is far from beautiful, it reminds me of the similar etymologies of the words “liberal” and “liberty.”

The left still won the culture war, at least in social issues. What, then, did they perform correctly, if not their use of words? There are many possible answers, and it is possible that more than one of them can be combined to most accurately explain their performance. University students became definitively left-leaning as early as the 1960s during the protests against the Vietnam War. Because elites are overwhelmingly college educated, the upper classes of America very quickly became dominated by leftists. These elites took influence over the vast majority of media platforms, most notably Hollywood, to feed their agenda to the masses. Ben Shapiro’s book Primetime Propaganda illustrates this process. The left has also successfully been framing social issues in deceptive ways, creating questions and perspectives that give a faux impression about the issues. Abortion is commonly framed around the mother, ignoring the child completely. Whether or not the fetus is a person becomes irrelevant, because the mother is the only person present who is not ignored. Questions about animal rights are centered around the animals rather than the people eating the meat, and it is the common sense framing of the issue. But this framing of abortion around the mother and her actions has never been successfully taken apart by the pro-life movement. The left has also framed opposition to same-sex marriage as a form of forceful intervention between two people trying to marry. This framing has also never been properly broken down, and it is still commonly held that opposition to same-sex marriage is authoritarian. Thus it is asking the right questions and framing the issues in their favor that the left has used to win the culture war. It is distinct from the control of word use, which has been an empty effort for the left. It will continue to hurt them if the right continues to control the sails, resisting the temptation to manipulate words, as does the left.

Morning Walk has no formal political affiliation, and there is no necessity for it to be right-leaning; but these traps into which the right may fall are also paths worth avoiding for Morning Walk. We have no control of the wind, and we cannot afford to use words based on what we think they “really mean” instead of observing the effect when these words are used. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to make our language clear to all audiences if we wish to communicate our ideas. It is never the responsibility of the reader to adjust to our use of language. It is much easier for us to learn the language of the public than for the public to learn the language of us. Acceptance of formulations from the opposition has almost always lead to success. The terms “Jesus freak” and “Jews for Jesus” were terms formed by those opposed to these groups. The response to this pejorative use was to control the sails, rather than the wind, and to embrace the terms. There is nothing wrong with adjusting to the terms, as long as we avoid adjustment to the framing of issues. If the pro-life movement adjusts to the framework of the issue around the mother, the movement will not look any more benign to the opposition. They will instead appear more severe and even authoritarian: they will look like those who wish to restrict a woman’s choice rather than those who wish to stand up for an innocent human life. This adjustment is fundamentally different from the use of words such as pro-life and pro-choice. Breaking up these terms into morphemes is counterproductive, because the pro-life movement is not against all choice, and the pro-choice movement is not categorically against all life. These labels serve as names, and they are stable; their etymologies are irrelevant to the conversation.

When we use words, we should focus on clarity, and we should make sure our words are understood to mean what we intend. If a word’s meaning is potentially unclear we should either define it clearly or avoid its use altogether. We should similarly request all others to define their terms when they manipulate words, instead of arguing that their use is incorrect. And these guidelines should be followed by all people at all times.


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