Last week we discussed how words are tools that make complex ideas portable. And ideas are powerful. Ideas create change. Ideas founded the country I live in. Creating ideas can be dangerous. But destroying ideas can be even more so.
So how do you destroy an idea?
Just kill the word.
George Orwell, Rose Macauley, and C.S. Lewis all wrote about it.
It starts out harmlessly enough. First, change the word from an objective fact into a subjective insult or compliment. For instance, the words villain and gentleman both used to refer to specific positions in society. A villain was a worker of a country estate. A gentleman was a man who lived off the interest of his property. Then people began to use gentleman to mean a person of good breeding or manners. Soon, the signs of verbicide appeared:
“As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a ‘real gentleman’ or ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.” -C.S. Lewis, The Death of Words
A word that becomes nothing but a compliment soon becomes overused and meaningless. Gentleman is now nothing but a polite term for male. Conversely, as soon as a word gains negative connotations, we avoid it. Think of all the harmless, factual descriptors that have become naughty words: Illegitimate. Dog. Excrement. And villain may not be “naughty,” but it certainly isn’t nice.
So, when a word becomes a synonym for good or bad, its original meaning fades.
As Mr. Lewis puts it:
“The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. …so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.”
Here’s the scary part.
Now, the first time I read the essay quoted above, it got me thinking. But then I read 1984, and it freaked me out. Because Orwell talked about good and bad synonyms, too. Listen in on this conversation about Newspeak (Big Brother’s idea of a language):
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well—better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning; or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still…In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words—in reality, only one word.”
And the punchline:
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
Mr. Lewis sums it up:
“…when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”
Now let that sink in.
When words die, ideas die. We are not only the creators of words and ideas; we are their caretakers. Our job is about more than using proper grammar. It’s about fighting for meaning.
What words do you see dying?