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In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass, (a source) Humpty Dumpty explains the very difficult "The Jabberwocky" to Alice. He knows every word's meaning because,

“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.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

At Esquire Politics, (the great) Charlie Pierce had a mini-entry that he got from (the great) Digby:
The TEA Party Chastening generator
Click on it. Please click on it. You'll enjoy it.

These are insults taken from John Boehner's MyFace wall. The TEA Cozy are very unhappy with him, and they are launching truly righteous insults, like:
"Fascist Commie"
"Establishment-loving Traitor."

A friend of mine wrote wondering what such self-consuming phrases mean. The answer is one of two things: either they mean exactly what their speakers want them to mean, or they mean what another great commentator on language suggested they would mean:

'The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. . . . . Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.'
(bold emphasis added)

I could link you many places for this, but George Orwell's 1946 "Politics and the English Language" is such a cornerstone of true thinking and writing that it is available in several countries and places. I'll link to it from Mount Holyoke College.

Orwell's totalitarian took hold of language to reduce the possibilities of meaning via Newspeak, where "Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought." The Newspeak totalitarian would be perfectly conformative. On the other hand, the citizen would have no meanings at all. If an intention did not fit into the words, the words were just floating about.

Obviously, we have had no totalitarians . . . or not many. . . in America. The truth that emerged in the post-Cold War is that whatever the Court and the Party need, the people outside of the palaces and boiler rooms need to know little of and understand less. Confusion is good. A language with no definitions, where Nazi Communists and Atheist Pagans coexist with conservative revolutions and religious freedom for corporations make for smooth sailing at the ALEC meeting and the fund raiser's idea session.

The meanings of the words, whatever they are, recede ever farther from the terms, and the speakers of the terms tumble, anything but tongue tied, into a stew of emotions. The words carry as much precision as a baby's first scream of pain and are as clearly directed.

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Comment Preferences

  •  LOL. Thanks for explaining my sig line... (3+ / 0-)

    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty (Antonin Scalia, John Boner, or Scotty Walker (pick your favorite) said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

    by Eman on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 01:41:34 PM PDT

  •  Spineless fascist RINO! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    serendipityisabitch, The Geogre
  •  Hotlisted for the Orwell notes. OTOH, Twain (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    theBreeze, petral

    said it better, though not as profusely.

    The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning
    Orwell needed an editor. He had some profound things to say, but his language limps, bordering on the stodgy for the most part. Aside from the legitimate points he makes in that essay, the thing that stood out to me was his refusal to allow for the possibility that the language of the Court of King James might ever be improved upon.

    That aside, the premise of the diary is worth repeating on a daily basis, especially on a political site where so many of the adjectives that get used have little value other than their ability to contribute to the next pie fight.

    At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

    by serendipityisabitch on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 02:37:36 PM PDT

    •  We cannot criticize Orwell (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      At the same time, Orwell's essay is of a particular time, and he had two dragons to slay. The one that I brought him up for is the loss of meaning in political terms (ask college students to define "capitalism"), but the main business he pursued in the essay was "officialese."

      I don't think he thought that King James's English is inviolate. Rather, he thought that the language after being refined through grammarians was impossible to improve. The English he championed was Eton's, and not stinky Jimmy's, which means that it had rules that came from artificial logic.

      However, most of "Politics and the English Language" is about the use of indistinct language to obscure meaning, the proliferation of prepositions, inversions of verb position, and the nasty habit of portmanteaus generated for political reasons, rather than absence of terms. He does have livelier essays.

      Everyone's innocent of some crime.

      by The Geogre on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 06:59:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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