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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

Arguing Semantics

Do Words Really Matter?

A few years ago, an app was released that expunged ebooks – by choice of the individual reader – of a predetermined set of words some people might find offensive. It was a silly endeavour marketed to people who were more concerned with surface than substance. (This inversion of values accounts for the fact that the lowest setting removed only the “major swear words” while the most stringent setting also replaced “some hurtful racial terms” – the developers clearly gave little thought to whether the F- or N-word had done more actual damage in society.) Authors were quick to reject what they saw as censorship, and some of them made good arguments against it. But while the ethics took centre stage in the debate, the aesthetics of the art-form went largely unexamined.

If you put down a novel, let’s say War and Peace, halfway through reading it and never pick it up again, you cannot say you read that novel. You read half of it. If you read the whole book, without knowing that you had been given a version with a drastically different ending, this one not written by Tolstoy but by a bored reader, you also could not say you’d read Tolstoy’s classic. You had read some other book a bit like it. How far can we extend this – does changing the title make it a different book? – and how far is it meaningful? Most would agree that a book without half of its chapters has lost something significant, but what of a book that has lost a single word? It might depend on what the word is.

Using the childish app from before, a passage in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is changed from, “It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of sex” to “It was not woman’s fault, nor even love’s fault, nor the fault of [love]”. So many issues arise: the redundancy of love being used twice in the distorted rendition, the obvious mistake of conflating the act with the emotion, and the question of what kind of maladjusted individual needs sheltering from the word sex. (Why is that puritan reading such a salacious book in the first place?) Keep in mind that we are not talking about words with the potential to remind survivors of the abuse they suffered – the app was merely designed to avoid triggering a hyperactive tendency to take offence, as attested to in the tagline for the product: “Read books, not profanity.”

Before you assume that my argument here is that swearwords should be left in books because they don’t matter, let me be clear that such words ought to remain precisely because they do matter. They matter to the author, who chose them with the same care she chose every other word, they matter to the story and its ability to convey a particular point of view or evoke a specific emotion, and often they matter to history, as artefacts showing us where we have come from and indicating where we are going. Words matter. They matter so much that I am showing my hand and answering this essay’s question up front, because really I want to examine the ways in which words are important. And I’ll start by arguing that words don’t have meanings.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

A true dialectical thinker, Wittgenstein was known for his ability to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previously believed to be true. His views on the philosophy of language represent exactly this kind of about-turn in his worldview. He began, in Tractatus, with the belief that language maps to the facts of objective reality; by the time of his later Philosophical Investigations, he was ready to claim that words do not essentially correspond to facts but that “the meaning of a word is its use”. (Matt Dillahunty phrases this as, “Words don’t have meanings, they have usages.”) What this comes down to is the notion of language games: There is nothing intrinsic in the word book that gives it its meaning, you may define the word book however you like; that definition, however, will have no meaning unless it is agreed to by the members of your language community. So what does this look like in practice, and does it actually matter?

Here’s an example: I get into a debate about the existence of God with a Christian and reveal that I am an atheist. My definition of atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any god. His definition of atheist, however, is someone who believes God does not exist. There is a subtle but profound distinction between these two views. And until I explain how I am using the term atheist, we will be talking past each other, failing to meaningfully communicate, because he thinks I have a burden of proof and I do not. It is not until we resolve what was lost in translation by my explaining how I am using the term atheist that we (understanding the mistake) can begin productively addressing the same issue. Or we end up fruitlessly arguing over who has the “correct” definition of the word atheist. Sadly, the latter outcome is more common than the former.

Here we see how semantics can provide clarity to conversation, revealing the assumptions beneath the positions each player in such a game holds. Because as long as I mean “A” and my interlocutor thinks I mean “B”, we will be on opposite sides of a linguistic wall, neither of us seeing what the other sees, nobody making any progress. It is an understanding of the semantics involved that shows us a door through which mutual understanding can be found along with further conversational avenues we might wander down together. In this way, you have removed one linguistic limit and have expanded your world.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

~ George Orwell, 1984

What do you call someone who has left their homeland and moved to another country? It depends on where the person is leaving: If they are from your own country and that country is England, America, or Canada, they are often referred to as expats. Everyone else, meanwhile, is a migrant. (This term is also often confused with refugee and asylum seeker.) What appears to be a strange linguistic tic in fact betrays a subtle sense of entitlement, that when we from developed nations move to exotic lands it is one thing, when others (usually not white) do it (and especially if they are heading our way) it is another. Worse, tabloids have warped the term migrant into a pejorative shorthand for invaders wanting to fill your comfortable life with the usual Daily Mail litany of apocalyptic horrors. Recognising and changing this won’t on its own solve xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry, but it points our attention at those issues and begins the process of recalibrating one’s perspective.

Feminists taught us this decades ago with regards to calling people mankind rather than the more accurate humanity, thus disregarding much of the world’s population, or referring to women diminutively as girls or sweetheart. Changing words was not the end but the means. My own father taught me a similar lesson, one that conveyed the importance of words to me at a young age and encouraged empathy. Whenever I wandered into the kitchen to moan, “I’m starving,” he would glance down at me as if checking on my physical condition before saying, “People in poverty are starving. You’re just quite hungry.” Truthfully, I subsequently paid attention to which word I used mostly to avoid this teasing riposte, but there were times when I really considered the truth behind what he said.

No one went less hungry because I stopped using the word starving, but it was one lesson amongst many that encouraged thoughtfulness and compassion over self-indulgence. This reveals a foundational tenet of my worldview: I believe that profound societal transformations – from the abolition of slavery to the recognition of gay rights – emerge from the accumulation of smaller, individual actions. It’s like evolution in that these smaller acts are mutations and society is a species. The majority of these small acts go into the dustbin of history, but the patient assembling of successes results in a distinct transformation. No one can know for certain which individual act will work out or fail – for every Rosa Parks there must be a thousand other people whose actions go unnoticed or get suppressed. But if you can’t know in advance if you will be one of the successful advocates of change, then there is a chance you will be. And the mind-set that motivates every Rosa Parks or Malala Yousafzai is made up of countless “small” lessons and experiences, some as seemingly insignificant as thinking about word choices.

Often, the negative response to such consciousness raising is to scoff at the perceived ridiculousness of worrying about words when there are bigger issues to address. (Incidentally, this is an informal logical fallacy known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation: If there is something worse than X, then X isn’t worth considering.) The resistant wonder out loud, “Why fight this battle?” not realising that in doing so, they are creating the battle. If changing words is, as they say, no big deal, then why not accept the change? If you are right, nothing is lost; if you are wrong, positive change has begun. Finally, if you believe changing words won’t change the world for the better, consider this: Racial segregation in America and discrimination against gay marriage were both supported – colloquially and in law – by the phrase “Separate but equal”, a piece of sophistry that manipulates words to endorse bigotry. If words can make things worse, they can also make things better.

“He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.”

~ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In their song ‘Spoils’, the band Protest the Hero describe language as “the heart's lament”, an “attempt to circumvent the loneliness inherent in the search for permanence”. We humans – “future ghosts who scratch their names in wet cement” – reach out across the existential void separating each person from every other person using various modes of communication, from art to music to speech. We make abstractions tangible with words, turning ideas into sentences, and these we can impart to other minds in an effort to soothe or deny our loneliness. David Foster Wallace believed (as do I) that it is the languages of “fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion” that “countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated” loneliness.

Carl Sagan wrote that “writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic”. Language is both a spell we cast and the magic it causes. We speak or write it into the universe and these sound waves and black symbols on white paper are transmuted by an alchemy in our minds into people and places, they cause us to cry and help us to heal. And not only do words produce beauty, they often are beautiful themselves. Defending his use of Japanese words in his English-language work, Lafcadio Hearn wrote to his editor:

“For me words have colour, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humours, eccentricities; – they have tints, tones, personalities. That they are unintelligible makes no difference at all. Whether you are able to speak to a stranger or not, you can't help being impressed by his appearance sometimes – by his dress – by his air – by his exotic look. He is also unintelligible, but not a whit less interesting. Nay! he is interesting BECAUSE he is unintelligible.”

Hearn was arguing for the Romantic, transcendent appreciation of the beauty of words that is able to exist without deference to rationality. Beauty is not necessarily arrived at by the following of strict rules or formulae (or, if you prefer, formulas). We can take guidance from what has worked elsewhere, but creativity is not a precise repetition of “the proper way” of doing things.

That’s why I don’t take a prescriptivist view of language. The concept of “correct” and “incorrect” language is something up with which I will not put. But I would argue that there are better and worse usages of language relative to subjective goals, which is to say that you don’t want to talk to your boss the way you speak with your child. I take a view that is fairly close to what Steven Pinker put forward in his The Sense of Style, that shared standards lubricate comprehension and reduce misunderstanding. There are ways of speaking and writing that appeal to my own sense of aesthetics and style of understanding. For example, I love C S Lewis’ advice: “Don't say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” But these are preferences, not inviolable dictums, because to be dogmatic about language is to miss that it is beautiful, creative, and a hell of a lot of fun.

“Don't gobblefunk around with words.”

~ Roald Dahl, The BFG

Language allows us to play linguistic games and perform mental gymnastics, from the endless variety of interpretations of a single poem to this gem from The Hobbit, when Gandalf replies to Bilbo’s greeting with: “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” We can play with language to devise riddles, which rely on the open-source nature of words to work. Language also lets us invent innuendos (the second best thing you can do by yourself) and the closely related double entendre (which can be taken two ways). Perhaps not all that consequential, but what is life without these displays of the trivial that tickle us?


[Read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language for a more in-depth look at the exploitation of language by those with power.]

• Niels Bohr, unsourced variant of a quotation in Hans Bohr’s ‘My Father”, in Niels Bohr: His Life and Work (1967)

• Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

• Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)

• George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

• James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

• Protest the Hero, ‘Spoils’ from the album Fortress (2008)

• Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

• Lafcadio Hearn in a letter to Basil Hall Chamberlain, reproduced here at Letters of Note.

• Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing (2014)

• C S Lewis in a letter to a fan named Joan Lancaster (26 June, 1956)

• Roald Dahl, The BFG (1982)

• J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)


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