Monday, April 05, 2021

What a Word Really Means

 I keep mentally arguing with that woman Douglas2/Unknown referred to in his comment under Transcending One's Era, he had known who believed that any use of the word "man" to mean "human," not only in our era, but in previous generations, signified a person who was intentionally excluding women from his formulation as unimportant. He noted what an effective insulator this was against listening to what anyone writing before last Tuesday had to say. 

When properly applied, teaching that dogma is as effective as burning the library of Alexandria -- the best knowledge of those who preceded us is effectively lost, even if the books and words are still right there in front of us.

Hers is an extreme example of what many others fall into that is not only bad linguistics, but in the end, bad thinking. I had a woman tell me once that she wanted to get Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary for her homeschooled children so that they would be able to look up what a word "really" means. For all of us, what a word "really" means is how we use it, and this will be close to two concepts: what our current group of communications understands as the meaning, intersecting with what we were taught in school and early adulthood is proper usage. That latter includes its own difficulties. I started school over 60 years ago, was taught by older teachers, in New England, with heavy influence of older well-read women who were conscious of their immigrant background and the importance of proper speech to rise in American intellectual society. That idea of "proper" English thus carries a lot of baggage that is 150 years old, not to mention regional bias.

A favorite example I have used before: If you were to go to some distant tribe to learn their language and make a dictionary of it, taking a full year and trying to be thorough, you would eventually be directed to a remote group, possibly older, who spoke what some would call a "pure" form of the language and others would call an "old-fashioned" version. Some of the mainstream people might even have grown up among them and regard them fondly. So you would innocently go to speak to these people, armed with your near-complete notes, ready for publication.  But a couple of old guys and old wives would tell you that your dictionary is wrong, and they would tell you why "Anca doesn't really mean cart, but the wheels on the cart, because it comes from the word anga, meaning 'axle.' That new slang term of calling a cart anca comes from the Teoni people downstream who say it that way.  That's not a proper was to say 'cart' in our language." You would nod politely, reflect on this interesting aspect of language change, and ignore their input entirely. What the word means is what the four thousand people in the villages understand it to mean, not what some relics who are kicking off soon think.

So too with us. Language changes underneath us at all times. I am personally in favor of retaining older usages as long as possible, to keep them current so that current children can understand what previous generations meant with as little difficulty as possible. I am reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my 13 y/o granddaughter and occasionally have to explain a word, though I minimise this in order to maintain the narrative flow. 

A word in a document "really" means what it meant to the community that received it, or even what the author thought it meant to that community. That is usually an unnecessary refinement of the definition, but occasionally matters. What the word has morphed into since that time is interesting, and may shed some light on the meaning, but is largely irrelevant.  This works in reverse as well.  What a word now means is what the community of hearers understands it to mean.  What it used to mean, or what we think it "should" mean, might be misleading. Most frequently, a meaning will be added to a word, sometimes humorously, sometimes with angry political meaning, sometime invisibly, which older speakers will declare "doesn't mean that." Racism has acquired new meanings. It is wise to recognise that when attempting to understand others.  However, that does not mean the older meaning has been destroyed.  That collection of sounds used to have one meaning, now it has two, and you are well within your rights to use the term as you see fit. Just know your audience.  You may have to say "I am using fantastic in the older sense because it captures my shadings of meaning more exactly."  And it is fair to say that "the newer usages of marginalised and racist aren't that helpful." The newer version doesn't get to be what the word "really" means either.

A quick summary of how words change.

Update: My understanding is that Antonin Scalia was and Clarence Thomas is very sticky about this. What the meaning of a word or phrase at the time it was written into the Constitution (or an Amendment) is key. The meanings the words took on later, even meanings that lawyers subsequently settled on in the 19th C, are distractions.  I have read arguments that some strict constructionists actually aren't, following language myths and preferred understandings of today, but I don't think that holds against those two justices.


james said...

Of course when words are used instrumentally, their meaning becomes incoherent. "Racism" is a good example, trying to weld the connotations of the old bad sense of the word onto neutral or even good contexts (like objecting to an Obama policy).
At some point, we have to converge on one meaning or the other.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The most likely outcome is a meaningless word that just means "really bad thing." I could cynically add "that liberal white people think black people find offensive. (Disclaimer: No actual black people were consulted in the defining of this word.)"

Korora said...

"Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future." -- Screwtape

Donna B. said...

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

Korora said...

Donna B:

Texan99 said...

I've been working on a Latin-English dictionary from about 1900. Of course nearly all the Latin is a revelation to me, but what's really amazing is how differently we already use the English words after only a little over a century. "Vicious," for instance, used to have a strong connotation of association to vice. These days it most seems to refer to physical cruelty or danger, as a vicious criminal or dog, but not so long ago it was nearly as likely to suggest a non-violent vice like smoking, gambling, or Sunday traveling.

C.S. Lewis has a discussion somewhere about words like villain, which used to have a fairly neutral socio-economic meaning before it began to describe the bad guy in a melodrama. The shift happens on the positive side, too, as in "nice," which meant precise or fussy before it came to mean "pretty much OK." Even earlier, apparently it meant something more like "ignorant."

Grim said...

I am a partial dissenter from this opinion, because of the example of Tolkien re-awakening long-dead words like "warg" and "Ent" and "orc," and finding in them a real power. If I want to understand a word, I look at the etymology at least as much as the dictionary definition.

It's only a partial dissent, but I think that there remains a residue that conveys somehow of what words have meant. Maybe it's because other words in the language with similar roots remain, cognates that we recognize subconsciously at least as conveying a similar meaning. Somehow, it matters whether you use the word that is related to that family of words, or an apparent synonym with a different etymology or from a different language family. The connotations, at least, differ in such cases.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Texan99 - I know he mentions "villain" in Studies in Words. Perhaps that's it.

@ Grim - I think what words have meant has enormous value, but only for those who have some familiarity with older vocabulary or combinations of sounds, even if they don't consciously make the associations. I suppose that can also work in reverse, and a Tolkien reader might move on to other older things and think "I've seen something like that before." Theoretically, that could trickle down even to a strictly modern vocabulary in successive dilutions, yet I think not. There are only so many sounds in the human repertoire, particularly when we are focusing on consonants. You need a broad collection of those associated sounds to start picking up associations from them.

Or so I guess. I have not data.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Grim - Owen Barfield wrote a lot about this early in his career in Poetic Diction and History in English Words - note the preposition, tthere. He believed words told us the history of our consciousness, back through Old English and on into Germanic and Indo-European. I learned today that he felt he was misunderstood and wrote Speaker's Meaning later in life, which summarised those ideas and restated them in what he hooped was a clearer form. I know nothing else about it. If you read it, let me know how it went.

Lewis and Tolkien both loved Barfield's thinking on these matters and encouraged him to write. I must just not get it, as it does not interest me. Too much anthroposophy in it for me.

Grim said...

Interesting! I will definitely consider reading that if I can lay hands on a copy.