Response: Words and the Meaning of Meaning

This is a response to Vlad’s Words and the Meaning of Meaning. In this post, I mean to present neither hard nor fast rules for usage of words and language. Both carry the weight of complexities which I will not (and am not able to) fairly address.

Vladimir writes, “What a word really means is determined by the impact of the word’s use.” He then gives examples of words meaning different things in different contexts: “football” refers to two different sports in the UK versus in the US. He explains that one should not simply rely upon a word’s etymology to find its meaning. Vladimir argues for seeing words for their communicative utility. All of this is sound. Semantics are just semantics.

However, I intend to critique Vladimir’s next argument. He writes, “Attempting to control the meanings of words is an awful strategy,” comparing it with trying to control the wind. This may be true. However, Vladimir fails to see the context of a word within its language. It’s true–a word, on its own, can mean anything, and that is all fine and dandy. But a word on its own is useless. One must recognize what a word contributes to the larger lexicon it is a part of. In this way, the meaning of a word helps build a language, which frames the way in which an issue is discussed.

Chinese numbers, for example, are simple, short, and make mathematical sense. Eleven is “ten-one,” twenty is “two-ten(s),” and so on. The Chinese language provides much better utility for discussing the decimal number system than, say, English or Hebrew.

To take an example Vladimir gives: “These (leftist) elites took influence over the vast majority of media platforms, most notably Hollywood, to feed their agenda to the masses.” The left sees things in terms of power dynamics, and they understand that 1) words make up languages, and 2) control of a language means power. The left knows that taking hold of a language gives them a home-field advantage. This is why Ben Shapiro (who, in private settings, obliges transgender preferences) called Zoey Tur a “Sir” in a televised debate. He knows that the left holds on to the silly pronoun controversy not because of a pedantic desire for people to use language correctly, but rather because it sees the use of language in terms of power.

As a general rule, I do not believe the right (or anyone for that matter) should seek to change a language for their ideological advantage. Languages should change for purposes of communicative utility and aesthetics. However, I do believe in undoing the changes of those who seek to change a language for their own power. Such people destroy the utility of the words within their language. For example, “homophobe” and “racist” used to be useful words to describe people with hateful ideologies or dispositions towards gay people or racial groups. The left has hijacked these words, making them into tribal signals that mean “that person is not one of us.” This is a dilution of the meaning, and renders the words less useful. In this sense, it is our duty to use these words in a manner that restores their utility. Embracing initially derogatory names like “Jesus freak” is an exception that proves the rule, because doing so gives an arguably more useful meaning to the term.

I admit. In some cases, a word’s original, more useful meaning is long lost, and trying to revive it may prove counter-productive. I will also grant that some words must first undergo a time of chaotic usage before their new, even better identity emerges. Lastly, I am very much in favor of alternative usages of words that differ from their primary meaning. (I hope reading this article was a ramble in the park.)

With that said, I would like to return to the original impetus that started this discussion. Looking at the word “ecumenical,” it would be a pity if its primary meaning became “kumbaya”–a vague meaning the liberal church uses as a tribal signal to empower themselves within language. Rather, we should restore “ecumenical” to its more specific meaning of intraecclesiastical dialogue that wrestles with difficult theological issues, like a “heavenly chariot [that] flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect” (G. K. Chesterton, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.” Orthodoxy).

About The Author

Zach is the Chief Editor of the Morning Walk Website. He built and continues to maintain the Website. As Chief Editor, he will attack every word you write. Nothing is safe from this grammar police who will take your words–all of them–and expose them to the greatest torture. Your clauses, phrases, and participles are not safe from him. (Chief Editor's note: The disgruntled Executive Director wrote the polemical portion of this bio.)

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