In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty confuses Alice when he says, in a rather scornful tone “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.” “The question is” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“I know words,” Donald Trump said in a campaign speech “I have the best words.” This may well be true, it is hard to judge from Twitter, but if he does indeed have the best words he certainly uses them in a very Humpty Dumpty way. What, for example, does he mean by American carnage? Where is it? Where is the mass instability and disaster he continuously references? He says “I get along with the middle class and the poor people better than I get along with the rich people.” He says, “I grew up in NY City, a town with different races, religions and peoples. It breeds tolerance,” and then goes on to be intolerant of just about everyone who is not a rich white male. Certainly it is a good thing to have lots of words, the best words but if they have no meaning then they are worse than no words at all.
I love words, always have; in my Dublin childhood, how you said something was as almost as important as what you said with extra points given in my family for wit. The invading English had banned our own language, Gaeilge, for centuries and we were a poorer people for the loss. Florid and musical, our native tongue was taught along with English to my generation of free Irish challenging us to be bi-lingual babies. Seven years of rote instruction in French paid off only later when I lived in Paris and adopted the eyebrow raises and shoulder shrugs that are part of the non-verbal punctuation that added power to the words.
I am not a language purist by any means, the swirls and changes of modern American English delight my ear; one of my favorite sentences ever is from Wyclef Jean who sang “just cos she dances go-go/don’t mean that she’s a ho, no”.
What is happening to the language in the current political climate grieves me; the intention to use words to confuse causes an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance and the consequences to a confused electorate are serious.
Madison Ave seized on distorting words early as a selling tool, putting an asterisk next to the word ‘natural’ to describe distinctly unnatural products for instance. Richard Nixon furthered the devolution even before he said, “I am not a crook,” so that Nixonspeak was coined to describe his obfuscations. GW Bush and his cohorts scrambled words sufficiently for Stephen Colbert to coin the term “truthiness.” “Reality” television really muddied the waters further; it may have been inevitable that Kellyanne Conway and alternative facts would follow. People in Washington fill the air with a barrage of words without meaning, momentarily disorienting the receiving mind. The current President dive-bombs our ears, daring us to make sense of nonsense. Believe me, he frequently says. It’s unbelievable, he says just as often.
In his recent work “The Kingdom of Speech” Tom Wolfe argues that what separates us from the animals is not just opposable thumbs but words, creating them and agreeing on what they mean has allowed us to describe and quantify the whole universe. Of course the answer to Alice’s question is NO! You can’t ascribe many meanings to a word. A word means what it means. It has to. I give you my word.