How to destroy an idea

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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?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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34 Comments

  1. What a fascinating post.

    It reminds me of a documentary I saw the other day on colours and colour vocabulary. According to the studies, particular cultures ‘see’ particular colours depending on their colour vocabulary. For example, in English we have 11 distinct colour words, so we ‘see’ colours within that range. Our word for ‘green’ covers a range of greens. But certain cultures from desert regions of Africa have two words for green, perhaps to distinguish between particular plant types. These people can easily distinguish between greens that might be considered nearly identical in an English-speaker’s colour spectrum. However, this same group of people also use their ‘green’ words to describe ‘blue’ things; they don’t have a word for ‘blue’. To them, there is no real difference between ‘blue’ and ‘green’ because they don’t have the language to describe this difference. Therefore, they are often unable to differentiate between the two.

    I think you’re right in saying that this principle can also apply to ideas and the destruction of ideas. After all, an idea is only as strong as the people who believe in it, and if those people lack the ability to express that idea, then surely it loses its potency, and hence its meaning and value.

    A truly amazing, and terrifying, thought.

    • Oh, excellent addition to this discussion! It’s funny how our brains use words to store and process information. We talk about photographic memory all the time and I think we forget how much of our processing power actually depends on language, versus images. I’ve also heard that the characteristics of different languages affect the people who speak them – that German, for instance, is a very exact language,suited to engineers’ minds, whereas Hebrew words each have multiple levels of meaning.

      Extra awesome points to you for sharing this!

  2. I do think, though, that for every word that dies, a new one can and will take it’s place. For instance, Muggle. Much as it’s a specific, made up word, it also refers to someone who is not part of a world which you and others are a part of, generally involving fantasy, but not necessarily the source, Harry Potter. For instance, if you and your friends are all Trekkies, where once you might have said “They’re non-trekkies” or “They aren’t into star trek” of people who… well, don’t like Star Trek – Now you can say “Eh, they’re just muggles.”

  3. Maybe I should change my blog to “Love The Worker of a Country Estate”.

    Do you think it will catch on…?

  4. I recently wrote a story using the word excrement. I wrote it as a factual word. The post received a comment from someone reading excrement as a naughty word.

    I believe I see the words democrat and republican being destroyed.

    • In line with that, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have been utterly destroyed by modern politics, to the point where they hardly have any meaning at all, much less what they originally indicated!

    • Very true! Republican and democrat have reversed in the last few generations and I’m betting less than 5% of the population even knows what the words originally meant.

      • I’m pretty sure that, not only have Republican and Democrat reversed in the last few generations, but they’ve already reversed a few times in our relatively short history. It’s no wonder people have so little idea what either of them means! I ought, really, to brush up on my American history. Hmm…

  5. It’s true and scary, and, I think, unavoidable. The question I often ask myself is how far I should go to fight this trend. Language changes with the culture, and that’s inevitable. It seems pointless fight for the reintroduction of words that are so archaic to have lost all their original meanings, however much I may like them. And yet sometimes, those words seem so much richer than what we currently have. Sometimes they have connotations that the modern substitutes don’t, and when we lose these words we also lose the richness of thought behind them.

    To support that I really need examples, but none immediately come to mind and my time online right now is limited. +( Hmm…let’s see. How about the word “gay”? The literal meaning is light-hearted happiness; Samuel Johnson defines it as “Airy, chearful; merry; frolick.” He also said it means something that is fancy or showy. Yet today it is always seen to mean homosexual. Regardless of one’s views on homosexuality, the word itself has been ruined. I’d like to use it in its original definition, but I’m afraid to because modern people will always snigger and read it with the modern connotations.

    • Great example. The good news is, the language is still growing, and we’re a long way from Newspeak, but I can’t help wondering how far political correctness will go and what it will become (when I first saw the word it looked like “news speak” to me, which instantly made me think of PC). We’re already consolidating our holidays into “season’s greetings,” which is meaningless.

  6. Thought-provoking article, Stephanie.

  7. You know something that scares me? Catastrophic word-loss is terrifying in general, but this set hurts me on a very personal level as a writer: We have lost, or almost lost the vast majority of our vocabulary regarding the natural world. Most people in our society do not live in a connection with the natural world. Clocks tell us the time, gps helps us navigate, and food comes from the supermarket. The result is, most people do not need to know, and therefore do not know most of the words we used to use to describe land. So much richness just gone, not even dictionaries have them, and we are left to describe the vastness of creation with a handful of generic terms that do not give a clear picture. Even gloaming, one of my favorite words of all times has all but vanished.
    What are the differences between marsh, backwater, bog, swamp, bayou, estuary and fen right? why not call them all “wetlands?”
    What is a draw, a canyon, a ditch, a valley, a cove, a hollow, or a ravine? Just pick one word and use them interchangeably.
    Thicket, slick, shrubbery (insert monty-python reference here) brush, coppice, copse, grove, stand, canebreak, scrub, hedge.
    Mound, down, hill, dune, hummock, slope, knoll, foothill, mountain, rise, ridge, plateau.
    Plain, bottom-land, lowland, grassland, scrape, tundra, bald, heath, moor, prairie, meadow, field, savannah.
    Stream, branch, river, tributary, watercourse, wash, creek, channel, beck, rivulet, spring, freshet, burn, brook, runnel, slough, canal.

    *throws up hands* and these are most of all we have left from hundreds of words that used to differentiate what people thought important. We lost them in less than two generations. OUCH. I wonder what can or will do when I have no more words that people recognize to describe the natural world… I already use cove, and hollow, branch and slick in my present story, and many people won’t know those. As writers, we do not just need words, we need the RIGHT words, and if all the words we need to describe something dies, then so does our ability to write about these things effectively. I don’t want to have to explain that there is a piece of raised ground shaped like a dome with grass on it. I just want to say there is a “grassy knoll.” Sad Anne is sad…

    • Anne. With an ‘e’ no less! Ha! Now I know your first name! …But I digress.

      I didn’t even think of those words, but you’re right. I see them less and less in literature. It does make me sad. And it’s a rather sad reflection on me for a conversation I’m having with David over here in regards to my failure to fully appreciate scenic description (though first sentences are a different matter, it is related).

      But you’re wrong about dictionaries – visual dictionaries, at least, have those words, though perhaps not all of them (depends on the size or specificity of the edition). How many people actually read visual dictionaries is a different story (but they are must-haves for writers).

      If you’re going to make a Monty Python reference with “shrubbery” I’m going to make a Tim Hawkins reference with “hedge”!

      • Yup, that’s me.

        I have been following that discussion with interest. I am in David’s camp when it comes to description, but I agree with you about the importance of drawing the audience in with first lines and first paragraphs. Description only draws in people like David and I, who seem to be in the minority.
        I originally started writing, not for the love of the stories I had to tell, or even for love of my characters, but because of my love of the texture of the worlds in my head. I wanted to let other people see and smell them. Place is extremely important to me, and acts as a definite character in my writing. When I read books, good description is something I actually go back to, time and again, in order to soak in the atmosphere. George MacDonald has frequently made me CRY with his description! “The Mountain” which is the introduction often hacked from abridged versions of The Princess and Curdie, is my favorite piece of poetic prose, and the book feels a skeleton without it. Description is what makes a book feel solid and grounded to me. I also have a very strong love for the natural landscape of my home, and that may have something to do with it.

        Oh, aye, those are all words that are still alive, if some of them are only barely so. I skipped from them to talking about the dead ones with no segue.There are many others that are dead, and it is those that have vanished from our dictionaries. This is a book I am very interested in obtaining for the resurrected landscape language it contains: http://www.amazon.com/Home-Ground-Language-American-Landscape/dp/1595340246
        While not language I could use much in writing, as it wouldn’t be very accessible, it still intrigues me.

        The internet can save some words that are dying, interestingly enough, because we can look up even obscure ones. On the flip-side, of course, the internet can have a negative effect on grammar and word-uses, so it may be a wash.

        That’s hilarious! Though I must say, there are some darn formidable hedges out there! Hello Hollies…

        • I have, over the past few months, been so busy, I’ve really only had five to ten minutes a day to read, so scenic description I would have normally enjoyed is now “a bunch of words I have to plow through to find out what actually happens next.” And by the end of the paragraph about the rugged terrain of the Sierra Blanco, I look up to discover I’m late for work and I still don’t know who killed Drubber and Strangerson!!!

          So I just need to work on being more patient.

          You are right about holly bushes. I had to put some Christmas lights on some last week and there was no getting through them. I ended up just sort of throwing the light strings around and hoping for the best. It doesn’t look half bad.

  8. I ran up against the modern connotations of “queer” recently. A character uses it to describe a forest, and it feels natural for his character to use it in its increasingly archaic meaning. A couple of my older readers thought it worked perfectly, set the right tone and all, but a couple of my contemporaries said that it jerked them out of the story. :( I have not decided, yet, whether to bow to the risk of jerking my readers out of the story and replace it, or whether to keep it for the tone it adds to the story.

    This is the section: “I’ve been in these woods a few times now, both before, and after I joined the Order. I know they’re queer, but this time it’s different.”

    *waves hands, frustrated* It’s the right word. The character resents the idea of changing it. I am inclined to keep it as it is, I think. Perhaps it won’t jerk people as violently out of the story as it might were he referring to a person.

    • That is a quandary. And a perfect example! I’m inclined to say keep it, too. If the voice of the book is “ye olde,” as I like to call it, readers, even ones who don’t know the original meaning of “queer” ought to be clued in by context. I don’t think the word is dead yet. I’d say fight for it.

      • *Grins* I’m glad for your input. The story isn’t as “ye olde” as some, it’s more pseudo colonial Appalachian than pseudo Medieval, but the tone and culture definitely are not modern. I will fight for it for it.

        On a side-note that you might find interesting, I am a dictionary-reader and have been since childhood (my pride and joy is a massive 1928 Funk and Wagnalls) and the e-mail I use here is a word that, when I was in high-school, was dead. It is still not in common usage because of its obscurity. Cryptocracy is secret government, and cryptarch means secret ruler. I found the word so intriguing that I had to adopt it. There is definitely a story or two curled up inside that word. :)

  9. “Epic” is long gone. It’s used to describe everything now, and its power has been stripped.

    • “Awesome” is going if it’s not already. I just commented on Lynnette’s blog with “awesome in the truest sense.” I was sad about it, but I said it anyway. And don’t forget “literally” and “ironic.”

  10. Have to share what I read last night. Immediately thought of this post. Hang in there, a series of credits has to precede–

    William Pritchard in an essay Ear Training quotes Antony and Cleopatra and I. A. Richards response. First the final moment from Antony and Cleopatra:

    She looks like sleep,
    As she would catch another Antony
    In her strong toil of grace.

    Now Pritchard:

    After quoting once more the final line–”In her strong toil of grace”–Richards asked “Where in terms of what entries in what possible dictionary, do the meanings here of toil and grace come to rest?” This is a question not to be answered by neat measurement, and one provoked, I think, by the way a particular complex of words, used by a master of language, can be “annihilating” of boundaries and limits as defined by the dictionary, …

    (Me again) My takeaway from combining the above quotation with the above post: It is our responsibility as writers to birth ideas with the words we choose.

    • Yes! The conflict is in needing to use existing words to illustrate new ideas (or old ideas in new ways), without stretching those words until they are unrecognizable. But I suppose death must come with birth in words just as it does with humanity.

  11. Pingback: How to control people’s thoughts with words « BeKindRewrite

  12. This reminds me of an article I was reading recently. It talked about how the whole concept of sin is fading away. Now instead of people taking responsibility for a sin they’ve committed, instead they blame it on sickness (mental illness). Hardly anyone admits to sin anymore. They drink too much because they have a sickness called alcoholism. They murder because they’re sick from a bad childhood. They’re pedophiles because they have a sex addiction etc etc. It’s crazy because not only do people deny responsibility, they don’t even hold others accountable as well. Everyone is just sick so really there is no way to have justice. We are all victims. What a scary world and what a slap in the face to those with real illnesses, who actually can’t control their decisions. The loss of one concept (sin) and the replacement of it with another (sickness) has changed a whole society. We should learn from Orwell and Lewis………. God bless

    • Amen! It’s a dangerous trend. Though sin could be considered a type of sickness in that we are born into a fallen world, and that it was the original sin that introduced real sickness into our world, the danger in eliminating the idea of choice is that you next eliminate the idea of right and wrong. Not evil, just sick. Just following instincts. Everything becomes relative.

      • So true and you’re right. We are sick with the sin nature though we still have free will to choose rather we sin or not. May truth prevail and those who know it speak it and live it. :)

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