Monday, February 2, 2009

On Words

I found myself making another linguistic distinction and remembered that my post, "Oh Sam You're Just So Special", seemed to go by too quietly. In case you wondered, the intention of that piece was to defend my way of looking at words and their meanings. Several people have objected to the sense in which I have treated 'socialism' and 'life' (within the term 'pro-life'). Their argument is that there is a mostly common and agreed upon meaning that I should abide by too. Any other meanings are ill suited for the purposes of doing anything other than empty, intellectual semantics.

I disagree. Words like 'socialism' that distill into "something about social," or 'pro-life' that clearly means "for, not against, life," are not defined by popular sentiment. They very well may function that way, but that does nothing to change what they mean to say. To question their meaning and posit a fuller representation is not to theoretically quibble, it is actually to advocate for the use of the language in ways that are consistent with common--not exclusive--intuitive senses that originate in human life, not apart from it.

So, in defense of what I coined the "weak intuitive" meaning of socialism or my abiding sentiment that 'life' is a broad expansive term that cannot be limited to this or that special interest group's own usage, I think that some words (certainly not all of them) have meaning that cannot be ignored simply because of their popular usage. At the same time, I think word games are parts of the primitive dance of the human struggle for truth, so, I am not arguing for some essentialist correspondence between language and objects.


brogonzo said...

I'm not entirely sure what it is you are arguing, Sam. But here's another take.

Language is a system of auditory and written symbols we use to convey thoughts. When I write the word "chair," there's nothing essential that connects the series of English letters into the complete word "chair," and nothing essential about the word "chair" that connects it to chairs in the real world or that conjures up the image of one in your brain, other than the fact that you have learned the same set of symbols that I have and we can therefore discuss chairs with each other.

So, when it comes to language today, common usage really does matter -- when you use a phrase like "pro-life" or "socialism," you're not simply calling up the Merriam-Webster definition of either term, but also -- and probably much more immediately -- the social norms and values that those terms have come to represent over their repetition in English. "Republican" and "Democrat" are similar, and probably better, examples of this.

So, if you want, you're welcome to use terms like these in the way that they were initially meant to be, or in the strict literal way, but ultimately what that means is that you're less interested in communicating with others and more interested in using your own set of rules to have a conversation with yourself.

angcopp said...

I revisited "Oh Sam You're Just So Special"... the word special definitely has picked up negative associations, particularly in the context you used it in. It's sarcastic. Or it's alluding to "different"... an alternative use of the word (think: Special Olympics ;)

Pro-life? If you want to pick apart the word in a dictionary way yes I am "pro" "life". I'm "for" people making the best choices they can and enjoying their lives to the fullest without harming others or detracting from others' ability to live well. I'm "for" the lives of women who are threatened by a pregnancy. I'm "for" the lives of people who are saved when the threat of a serial killer is eliminated. I recognize that abortion and the death penalty can be flawed alternatives on a case by case basis, but I also believe at times that the good/rights of a group have to be considered at what may be the expense of another... I know this is a disagreeable stance (as is the alternative) but I am quite sure there is no perfect "side" to choose on such intricate personal issues.

So while Barney or my mom might say I'm special... I'm just an average person who couldn't compete in the regular olympics on my best day, but certainly couldn't get into the special olymics either ;) I'm pro-life in a dictionary sort of way, but when I hear that term used in its normal context it evokes images of angry close-minded hypocrites carrying signs displaying mutilated fetuses. This I am not.