Our Use of Words Matters

Author's Note
This post is reprinted, with some modifications, from LocalCommentary.com, where I posted it in 2010.

Words mean things, and many of the most important words mean a range of things. Consider, for example, that love can mean anything from a selfless, divine love to something only barely on the happy side of animal lust. A five year old who declares his love for his mother means something much different from what his mother means when she says she loves him.

A man and woman who discover that they love each other would do well to explore what they mean by love long before they order the wedding invitations. Likewise, we must be careful to define our terms anytime we engage in serious discussion, legislation, or decision-making which turns on the precise meaning of words.

The need to invent new words and to use old words in new ways is obvious and continual. Even if we exclude deliberately deceptive usages such as George Orwell’s classic, “Freedom is slavery,” there are several very common reasons for inventing and reinventing language. One is to emphasize a new wrinkle in an old concept; perhaps calling teachers educators is one such example. Another is to show off or, perhap more honorably, to get published and get tenure in the academic world. We also coin or remake words for humorous or rhetorical effect. Sometimes the desired effect is diplomatic, as when people speak of a religion as a “faith tradition,” to avoid offending people who don’t have a religion.

If we want to limit discussion to insiders only, or if we’re tone-deaf in matters of normal human communication, we use our own specialized jargon even when our technical discussion goes public. Thus we might produce a slogan for public consumption about “enculturating” school students, rather than teaching them. Pardon me while I cringe.

Sometimes we mean perfectly well, when we invent and impose our own lexicon, but there are often unhappy consequences nonetheless. For example, a certain locally dominant religious denomination has fallen into the habit of using the noun friendship as a verb. In that context, to friendship someone is to be friendly to nonmemmbers, in the hope that they will sooner or later want to convert. I suppose we could debate whether friendshipping is a terrible thing to do people — or a terrible thing to do to the language — but let’s note instead what is lost in our repackaging of the word. Using the perfectly good, preexisting word befriend instead might usefully emphasize that being good friends and good neighbors is a worthy and important goal in itself, not just as a means to an evangelical end. For some reason, this seems much easier to forget when we focus on friendshipping.

I’ve seen this sort of linguistic abuse on a large scale. Imagine an important and substantive required course at a major university. Let’s call it American Heritage. Its very appropriate goal is to teach the history, economics, and political science necessary for an intelligent, active, lifelong citizenship. Certain highbrow American institutions (which are quite admirable in others ways) would turn up their nose at such a course, but I think it’s an excellent thing.

When I finally read my American Heritage textbook — so I could test out of the requirement — it was rather late in my undergraduate career. It was an introductory course, but I had already had considerable coursework in political science, history, economics, political thought, and constitutional law. I discovered that its authors had in many cases invented their own vocabulary. My knowledge of the words commonly used in the academic, legal, and political worlds for familiar concepts didn’t help me at all with that textbook.

Unfortunately, the opposite effect was common among students who took the course. They dutifully mastered the course’s idiosyncratic lexicon, then found themselves unprepared to participate in the national discussion of political and economic issues — until they learned the standard vocabulary used in that discussion, which the course could easily have taught them. In other words, the course largely defeated its own purpose by insisting on inventing provincial alternatives for the perfectly good words the English-speaking world already used to discuss the same subjects.

As you have already guessed, all this is prelude to some careful discussion of words. The particular terms are republic, democracy, social democracy, and Marxism.

I did not select these words at random. I remember vividly the discussion and debate between some voters and some administrators in the Alpine School District about the meaning and appropriate use of those words. It seems to have died down a bit in the past few years, but, when it peaked, there was more than enough heat in the room, but not quite enough light. I’ve seen the same inadequately illuminated discussion play itself out elsewhere, too.

In 2010 a district administrator was actually heard in a public meeting, wondering what’s so wrong with the Alpine School District coming up with its own definitions of words. If you’ll pardon my saying so, that’s a strange attitude for a teacher. Why does it seem less strange for an educator?

On the other side, parents and others argued that certain words actually mean certain things, and some of them have no business appearing in the Alpine School District’s mission statement or official statements of goals and values. I am more sympathetic to this view, but its advocates handicapped — and still handicap — themselves by using the essential terms with more passion than precision.

In three upcoming posts, therefore, I’ll take a careful look at the terms republic, democracy, social democracy, and Marxism. All of these are evolving concepts; in some cases they have been so for more than two millennia. However, with a little luck, we can come to something coherent in each case, based on history, political thought, and common usage.

That’s about it for today. I leave you with this parting thought, which is a memorable statement by one Inigo Montoya, a fictional folk philosopher in a fictional monarchy (in a favorite movie, The Princess Bride): Quoth he, in a voice with more than a coincidental resemblance to Mandy Patinkin’s, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Our first word will be republic. Stay tuned.