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Memories of the 28th Century

Word Abuse

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'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.'. From Alice in Wonderland by Charles Dodson, AKA Lewis Carroll

One fundamental element of language is that the words have the same meanings for everyone using that language. On the other hand, metaphorical and ironic uses of words are common and are meaningful, and languages evolve, in part, by people using words in different ways. Some people use words in novel ways to comment on political or philosophical opinions. I was thinking about such political and philosophical ideas recently, and especially the twisting of a word to assist. Specifically, I was thinking how in English the word ‘gender’ has gone from being a set of grammatical uses to being an attempt to replace the word ‘sex’. That brought to mind other attempts to twist language to push propaganda. But most languages use gender to show whether a pronoun refers to a male, a female, or to neither, and some inanimate things are referred to in either the masculine or feminine gender; for example, ships are referred to as feminine

This has been a problem for as long as language has existed, and it is part of the normal evolution of language. Amusing and metaphorical use of words makes language more interesting, but it isn't a replacement. According to the article (link below), people often assign identities, names, and gender to computers and other machines. I have known people who named all sorts of thing, but there seems to be no consistency as to the gender of things, but when Alexa became common on cell phones and computers, many people referred to them as female, because the voice is feminine.

I find it interesting and curious that the same people who want to call the sexes genders also wanted to eliminate words that have both masculine and feminine forms in English. There are not a huge number of such words in English, so there wasn’t much interest in that, and people still refer to hostesses as hostesses, but I have seen executrices referred to as executors, which seems rather odd, and it seems like an insult to call an actress an actor, especially since many of them use their feminine charms in their trades.

I suspect that many people have strong opinions about the use of gender in English, and that others are totally baffled by the matter.

Another change in meaning for political reasons that many people don’t think about was the introduction by the American Indian Movement of the term “native American” instead of American Indian. I pointed out to one of their public figures that it didn’t do what they wanted, because I and most Americans were born in America, so we are native Americans. He conceded the point, but not long after that they introduced the term, but they have retained the name of their organization, the American Indian Movement.

Those are just a couple examples of the sort of language abuse that George Orwell called Newspeak in his novel 1984. American politics have become more and more like something that should be satire, and Donald Trump has been the most extreme example, so far. Trump created pseudo-facts with reckless abandon, but the State of Georgia may be putting his election lies to a final rest by putting Trump on trial for his activities there.

The overall point that I would like to make is that language only works if the speaker and the hearer have definitions of the words in common. If the hearer thinks that evidence is the set of opinions that he has, then it doesn’t make any difference what the speaker says, because the hearer will only understand what he wants to understand. There is a relevant science, semiotics, the most notable philosophers of this study were Charles Sanders Peirce and Umberto Eco. Semiotics is the study of signs, and that study tells us how language works. I strongly advise that people learn about semiotics. There is too much involved to go into it here. Umberto Eco’s writing on semiotics is some of the most approachable.

It almost slipped by, but one of the reasons why I wrote this was the misuse an abuse of the word “doctor”, which was taken directly from Latin (doctor-is, third declension), and it means teacher. A few centuries ago, one university in the UK started calling the advanced degrees that they gave to physicians “doctorates”, even though the recipients were not competent to teach medicine, that was to make them feel they were the equals of doctor of philosophy which were conferred on people in most academic fields. The physicians took to calling themselves doctors, and that is still the case. Many physicians don't even know what doctor means. One physician told me emphatically that he was a “doctor” in an attempt to make his ignorant comment have some weight. It didn't carry weight, and he also admitted that he doesn't keep up with research in his field.

Metaphorical Gender in English

The Orwellian “Amerika” of Donald J. Trump?

On Eco and Peirce