Even if you never read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (you should, by the way; G. K. Chesterton insisted it is adults and not children who should read Carroll), you probably at least have heard of Alice’s exchange with Humpty Dumpty about the meaning of words—or, more accurately, about control of the meaning of words. In this case, the word glory.
“I don't know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant ‘there's a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“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.”
Our age is considerably more afflicted than was Carroll’s by the abuse of the meaning of words, as members of our ruling class—cultural as well as political—distort meanings to support their aims.
I understand now that the alleged perpetrator of the Second Boston Massacre has been charged with possession and use of “weapons of mass destruction.” Hmm. Pressure cookers, TNT, ball bearings, and nails equal weapons of mass destruction? Well, surely Saddam Hussein had those.
Be assured I’m not making a case for the invasion of Iraq. I stood with Popes John Paul and Benedict (and doubtless Cardinal Bergoglio) in their opposition to the Iraq War. My point is that ten years ago, “weapons of mass destruction,” a phrase that once described nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC, as we used to say in the Marines) weapons of a strategic scale was already expanding in its definition to include something vague that the Baghdad dictator seems not to have had even the capacity to create. Today the phrase includes homemade bombs.
Again, I feel at pains to clarify that I desire justice for the co-murderer of four and maimer of hundreds. Nonetheless, I’m going to suggest something old-fashioned here: Justice is better served by honesty than deception. (Sorry, Lila Rose fans.) Justice is better served, when it comes to language, by precision rather than innovation.
The obvious example is the word choice, which today means “infanticide.” Oddly enough, choice does not mean “shoplifting,” although I have often asked defenders of abortion if they support choice when it comes to petty theft. None do, it seems. Choice, by the way, does not mean “smoking cigarettes,” “not wearing a motorcycle helmet,” or “owning a handgun.” Choice pretty much means “killing a baby.” Pardon me, “terminating” one.
Today we also find ourselves in a battle over the meaning of the word marriage. We are at the point where people who understand marriage to be a bond between one man and one woman breakable only by death are forced to use expressions such as “traditional marriage.” This battle, in fact, was lost long ago, with the dissipation of the remaining whiff of scandal that attached to the metaphysical impossibility called divorce. (As with so much cultural destruction, California led the way in this country.) Chesterton predicted in the Superstition of Divorce, “Instead of the old social distinction between those who are married and those who are unmarried, there will be a distinction between those who are married and those who are really married.”
Here are some other words the meanings of which have been distorted in the service of cultural vandalism:
Family. Remember Barbara Bush’s inscrutable assertion, “However you define family, that’s what we mean by family values.” The fact is, today most American households are not traditional families. There I go, using that word traditional.
Education. Long gone is the belief that education’s purpose is to give man an understanding of who he is and the nature of his relationship with his fellow man and with his Creator. At best, education today is technical or professional training. More commonly, the higher sort is indoctrination in hatred of the Christian West. Even Catholic schools seem to have forgotten that the Church created modern education. Is there a diocese in America that does not look to the secular state to certify its parochial-school teachers?
Border. Today, border means “sieve.”
Islam. “Islam is a religion of peace.”
Property. Belloc called property “the means of production.” Today, property means “a mortgage on a sphere of consumption.”
Social. (As in “social media.”) Pretending to be friends with people you do not know and never see. Shouldn’t we call Facebook et al “antisocial media”?
Friend. See above.
Gender. A term once related to grammar is now something mutable across the spectrum of social deviance.
Art. There is actually a classical definition of art. It edifies, delights, and instructs. It makes manifest the good, the beautiful, and the true and draws he who beholds art toward these realities. The bulk of what we call art today is ugly, chaotic, disordered, dishonest.
I’m sure you can think of many more. I know I could go on, but it’s Friday, and almost time for a beer. Oh, beer—that’s another one. On this score, I am happy to report that California—San Diego, in any case—is a center of the restoration of the true meaning of that word.