When you deprive language of its freedom to be somewhat slippery, squishy, and imprecise, you deprive it, as well, of its talismanic power to illuminate the world around us.
“Every word is a pocket into which now this,
now that, now several things at once have been put!”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1886)
I remember laughing out loud when John Ralston Saul defined the word dictionary in The Doubter’s Companion as: “Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.” I’m suspicious of dictionaries. Always have been. But I’m even more suspicious of those who love dictionaries. There’s a certain kind of annoying guy—isn’t it almost always a guy?—who gets visibly aroused when confronted with the iron-clad certainty of a dictionary definition. Incidentally, these are the same high-functioning autistic men that get sweaty and excited when they talk about rational-choice theory, logic, and utilitarianism. What these guys want—more than anything else—is to nail reality down, once and for all, goddammit! And they want to do this because deep down—in their heart of hearts—they have a visceral hatred of ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt. They look up at Living Language—soaring far above them, in the sky, like a free bird—and they think:
- I will catch you in my nets!
- I will clip your stupid little wings!
- I will put you in my cage!
- I will make you my pet!
- I will make you my slave!
- And if I can’t catch you with my nets, I’ll shoot you!
- And stuff you!
- Put you on my wall with the rest!
When you deprive language of its freedom to be somewhat slippery, squishy, and imprecise, you deprive it, as well, of its talismanic power to illuminate the world around us. Language can’t be nailed down because it’s alive. And, like all living things, it’s in a constant state of evolution. Random mutations abound. New meanings emerge. Old meanings die. Existing meanings are modified. Such is the nature of language. For instance, the word “gay” has changed quite dramatically.
In A Child’s History of England (1851), Charles Dickens said of Thomas Wolsey: “He was a gay man”—meaning, of course, that the great Cardinal Wolsey was a cheerful, lighthearted, happy man, not given to bouts of melancholy; a man who loved life and knew how to have a good time. Gay didn’t mean homosexual in 1851. Indeed, it didn’t take on that meaning until well into the twentieth century.
But by now, in 2015, the new meaning of gay (homosexual) has completely eclipsed the old meaning of gay (joyful)—so much so that homophobic jocks at John Abbott College don’t want to be caught reading Nietzsche’s Gay Science (a book I assign often). One guy—the quarterback, if memory serves—went so far as to make a cover for his copy of The Gay Science.
Though it pains me to admit it, the cover was actually quite pretty.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
Photo courtesy of author.