Words, Words, Words! I’m So Sick of Words

September 4th, 2011

By Dan Miller

WordsOnce upon a time, in a far off land, the words Gentleman and Lady had meanings different from today. Gentlemen were males privy to the very person of the King; ladies were females privy to the very person of the Queen.

Over the years, the terms came to have more egalitarian, but still recognizable, meanings. Gentleman came to mean a male of independent means and reasonably high social standing, and frequently but not always of higher educational status than the population at large. Mere shopkeepers and even affluent merchants were infrequently denominated “gentleman.”

Again, Lady had a parallel meaning. Gradually, the terms devolved into designations of the gender-appropriate toilet facilities, generally printed on signs on the door. Now, perhaps finally, the words have all but disappeared. The terms “Men” and “Women” frequently adorn the sacred doors, and remaining uses for even these words are disappearing with the advent of unisex facilities.

Notwithstanding their dilution, Gentleman and Lady retain some vestiges of their former glory. To call someone a Gentleman or a Lady occasionally expresses an anticipation, or at least a fleeting wish, that the person so called will behave in a socially acceptable fashion.

The meanings of other words have also changed over time and in many cases new words have evolved with roots in common with the old. Most likely, “Car,” of which there are now many, evolved out of “Carriage,” of which there are now few. “Montana” is derived from the Spanish word “Montaña,” meaning “mountain.” Sometime, translations from one language to another produce unintentionally appropriate results. In at least some internet translations, which tend to be rather literal, of Spanish language newspapers, “Fidel Castro” becomes “Fidel I Castrate,” because Castro is also the present tense, first person singular form of the verb “to castrate,” castrar. But I digress.

Many of these changes are inoffensive and even necessary. I mean, you know. Others can be offensive. The devolution which I find most offensive involves the word “liberal.” Frankly, my mind simply can no longer bend itself around this word. Thomas Jefferson considered himself a liberal but would, most likely, find little in common with those who appropriate the term today. Lock Mr. Jefferson (of Virginia) in a room with any one of the many so called liberals of today, and they would possibly come to blows, the event being at least forestalled because Mr. Jefferson was a “gentleman” in the eighteenth century sense of the word. Query, how many people who nowadays call themselves liberals believe that their views on life, the universe and everything reflect those of Mr. Jefferson. After all, he was a “liberal,” and so are they.

Sir Winston Churchill occasionally referred to himself as a liberal Conservative or a conservative Liberal. I do not think that he had in mind the twenty-first century usage of the word “liberal,” because I would hate to think that he was capable of being inarticulate and using meaningless phrases.

When and how did the word “liberal” come to mean socialist, communist, anti-religious, pro-abortion, pacifist, advocate of drug legalization, proponent of “multi-culturalism,” speaker, defender and demander of political correctness, advocate of affirmative action, sufferer of massive feelings of unrequited guilt, caster of blame for all the ills of the world on the United States, and such stuff. These notions have little if any legitimate root in “liberalism” as the term has historically been understood. Bertrand Russell, a true liberal in the old fashioned sense of the word, wrote in one of his superb pieces of satire about the “superior virtue of the oppressed.” Perhaps years later, some “liberals” took his words seriously; after all, he was a liberal, the satire is congruent with many of their professed views (and liberals rarely attempt humor, except perhaps inadvertently).

“Liberal” has come, wrightly (oops, my bad) or wrongly, to be considered a term of praise, while there has been a rush (oops, again) to deem “conservative” a term of opprobrium. This assault on the English language is unfortunate. It is a wicked form of “new speak.”

I elect to use the word “liberal” to connote an open but not empty mind, a tendency to encourage the expression of opposing views, to listen attentively to them, and to desire to become familiar with them regardless of whether they are agreeable. It suggests a rational rather than a dogmatic approach to reality. A “liberal” in this sense can also be conservative; a conservative can, by the same token, be a “liberal;” there is no contradiction in terms.

Although this is my preference, I try very hard not to use the word at all, because the meaning(s) it conveys is (are) not what I intend. Instead, it seems better to use the word “leftist,” which perhaps has less historical baggage and better conveys what is most often meant by “liberal.”

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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