It’s the bane of many an author these days: those newspaper-filler Q&As. One I recently filled out included the question: ‘What’s the book you’re never without?’ Of course, there’s no book I lug about with me everywhere, but inanity comes with this territory. I responded: ‘A tattered, duct-taped blue hardcover of my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (based on Webster’s Third) published in 1969.’
Lame? Actually, no. Access to older analogue dictionaries has become politically invaluable.
Pre-internet, august dictionaries such as Webster’sand the OEDfunctioned as linguistic anchors. Beneficially slow to adapt and resistant to vernacular fashion, print editions that were expensive to reissue acted as drags on popular misunderstandings (no, ‘notorious’ does not mean ‘famous’). By calling us to shared agreement on what words did and didn’t mean, hard-copy dictionaries helped facilitate clear, precise communication. But online dictionaries have jettisoned this conservative purpose. Capable of being updated daily, digital definitions change with the wind, and are eternally playing catch-up with galloping popular ignorance. The hoi polloi, not the fuddy-duddies, are in charge.
This leaves English susceptible to witlessness, yet also to deliberate manipulation. We’re not talking merely about rapidly evolving slang, but about the meaning of staple, commonplace vocabulary, revised definitions of which can slyly import partisan ideological baggage to everyday discourse.
By way of example, let’s take three pairs of words, all of which, in Webster’s Third, comprised synonyms and now do not. This particular trio of lexical modifications has been imposed from the left, for in their postmodern incarnation progressives are keenly aware of language as an instrument of control.
• Sex/gender. In my 1969 dictionary, the sole difference between these two nouns is that ‘gender’ has a grammatical function in languages like French. Otherwise, they mean exactly the same thing (‘gender: 1. sex’). But we’re now given to understand that ‘gender’ refers to the basket of social behaviours and ornamental conventions that traditionally govern each sex (what in the olden days we called ‘sex-role stereotypes’), which has bugger-all to do with carrying XY or XX chromosomes. Separation of biological sex from the cultural play-acting of sex is in the clear interest of the transgender lobby. Having now split off the largely trivial, decorative poppycock we heap on sex from the immutable reality of DNA, the movement’s most extreme activists now aim to replace ‘sex’ with ‘gender’, even in legislation — the better to kill off the concept of biological sex altogether. This calculated semantic divorce has been a resounding success. So good luck ever claiming that, in point of fact, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean the same thing.
• Equality/equity. If you’ve been keeping up, you’re au courant with this notion whereby ‘equality’ refers to equality of opportunity, while ‘equity’ implies equality of outcome — aka, tyranny, though luckily for the left the word ‘equity’ doesn’t sound like tyranny. To the contrary, a mere two letters shy of the sublime ideal of ‘equality’, ‘equity’ sounds fluffy, harmless, and nice, making it a fine linguistic Trojan horse for the advocacy of confiscatory income redistribution, wealth taxes, racial reparations and strict or even over-compensatory racial and genderquotas in hiring and education. Kamala Harris is chillingly big on ‘equity’. In recent speeches, Joe Biden now also prefers the word ‘equity’, and ‘equality’ is quietly disappearing.
But guess what? This conceit is a contemporary fabrication. In my Webster’s, the first definition of ‘equity’ is ‘justice according to natural law or right; specif: impartiality’; further down we get to property ownership ‘in excess of claims against it’, but there’s no mention anywhere of ‘equality of outcome’. ‘Equality’ means ‘the quality or state of being equal’. There’s a small difference in usage and nuance, but the modern opposition is completely confected for the convenience of radical socialist identitarians.
• Patriotism/nationalism. Merriam–Webster’s defines ‘patriotism’ as ‘love for or devotion to one’s country’ and ‘nationalism’ as ‘loyalty and devotion to a nation’. Oranges and oranges, right? Even the dictionary’s current website acknowledges that the nouns were once interchangeable. But the reference now qualifies that ‘nationalism’ also means ‘exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations’.
Sorry to quibble, but ‘patriotism’ also exalts one’s own country over all others, or the word would mean ‘love for everywhere’. This philological hiving-off of good patriotism from bad patriotism is expedient for progressives, who often need to refute the accusation that they hate their own countries. This dubious distinction frequently connotes divergent attitudes towards mass immigration. ‘Patriots’ can advocate open borders, while ‘nationalists’ are selfish bigots who throw children in cages. Putting a neo-Nazi stink on the word ‘nationalist’ also puts a stink on the desire for more effective border enforcement.
Yes, yes, language is a living, breathing thing that’s eternally transforming… But these examples are arguably inorganic. They involve strategic lingual reinventions that are relatively new and politically motivated. Language may evolve naturally, but it also responds to manhandling. Er, if we can use that word any more.
Along these lines, I was pleased to note that a few issues back in The Spectator Dot Wordsworth took on a pet misappropriation of the anti-woke: ‘performative’. As our in-house pedant observed, until about five minutes ago this fiercely specific adjective from linguistics described a verb whose usage performs its action — such as ‘I promise’ or ‘I apologise’. Exasperatingly, according to my beloved blue dictionary, we already had an adjectival derivative of ‘performance’ that works as a synonym of ‘theatrical’ and ‘histrionic’: ‘performatory’. Granted, we desperately needed a tag for the droves of left-wingers prone to pompous, preeningly righteous posturing that bolsters their social status. But these peacocks’ detractors hastily grabbed the wrong word — thus trampling ‘performative’ in its original sense into the morphological dirt. Such well-meaning illiterates are often my political brethren; nevertheless, I cursethese people. Now, that’s me being ‘performative’.
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