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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Must We Mean What We Say?

Dictionaries are misleading. They give us the meanings of words. But when we use words we don’t always mean them in the way the dictionary defines them.

“Hey, you’re a real friend!” someone exclaims and it seems the meaning is all there in the words. But when someone exclaims “Hey, you’re a real friend!” ironically the words are exactly the same but the meaning has changed to its opposite.

So there’s often a difference between what a word means (in the dictionary) and what someone means by using it. Technically, it’s the difference between semantics - defined in dictionaries - and pragmatics - the meaning an utterance has in context.

This is a main reason why dictionaries struggle with words they label pejorative. Take the word “Negro”. Some dictionaries think the word is pejorative (in English, in American) but others don’t. This disagreement arises because dictionary makers cannot make exhaustive studies of how words are actually used. Nor – remarkably – do they always position a word in what you might call its semantic field and the changes which such fields undergo through time.  For example, once upon a time in America (white) people who did not want to use the word “Nigger” because it was mostly used pejoratively could opt for the more neutral “Negro”. (Is that historically accurate?) Among other things, this re-enforced the pejorative status of “Nigger”. Things then changed and a new word entered the semantic field which laid claim to replace “Negro” as the non-pejorative term of choice – the word “Black” which was promoted by black people, as in 1960s “Black Power”. [ I think that’s more or less accurate, but it works as history only for American English not my British English and still less for Spanish ]

To continue. Aren’t there some terms which  in the US or UK can now only be used pejoratively? It seems that the answer is “No” if we take into account language use in intimate relationships. It’s true that I am not in a position to use “Nigger” non-pejoratively, ever, and I would not even try, but there are people in intimate relationships who can and do use the word affectionately towards each other, just as there are people who manage to say “You cunt!” and mean it as a term of endearment. That’s just the nature of language: there is always some context in which you can turn it against itself . The bedroom is a very obvious place.

Sunday School teachers of all denominations are not comfortable with either irony or intimacy. A word means what it says in the dictionary, not what you pay it to mean.

The nearest I have ever been able to find to a word that can’t be turned for a different use is the word “just” as in “She’s just a housewife”, or "You're just jealous" which it seems can only be used as a put – down, hence pejoratively. I struggle to think of a plausible ironic use of those two expressions but I have to say I think it could be done with a bit of imagination. What is interesting is that in this case, we are no longer dealing with a noun. It is usually only nouns which arouse debate. But it may be that the inflections which words like “just” enable should attract more of our critical attention. Sometimes we do fasten on them: “ I was only trying to be helpful” sometimes gets the tart reply, “What do you mean, ‘only’ ? ”

Dictionary makers are actually finding their work even harder than it always has been. The globalisation of communication and the ready access to means of communication (“social media”) by people who would not normally have had a public voice is speeding up the introduction of new words, the revision of semantic fields, and the rate at which people find new ways of doing things with the words they have. Set against the carnivalesque world of the Internet, the Académie Française has no chance. It also makes hard work for novelists (who are trying to write to be read for more than a week). A writer like Junot Diaz tries to reflect the Carnival in his writing but I noticed reading his book This Is How You Lose Her that he avoids the topics of Sport, Music and Drugs where any material is likely to date quickly.

When a good case is made out for not using certain words or expressions then people – even on the Internet - do change, do adapt. People are most easily convinced when what they are being asked to do is show respect for others in the language they use to name them. Above all, to avoid or not use at all terms which most often have been used pejoratively and which are used almost exclusively to stigmatise those who belong to groups whose members are generally less powerful in society. In these cases, a large part of the world is now really remarkably well-behaved.

Of course, each society is different. Today I read that the latest poll says that 50% of American voters would be "embarassed" to have Donald Trump as President. We sure do need to talk about the other 50%.


[A piece of autobiography. As a small (say 3 to 7 year old) white child growing up in southern England, circa 1950, I was fascinated  by the colour words which my mother (born 1907) and her sister Nellie (1897) used to talk about clothes and house decoration. My mother liked Powder Pink and Powder Blue. Auntie Nellie’s bungalow (just round the corner) was painted Cardinal Red & Cream and her favourite colours were Mustard Yellow and Nigger Brown. Apart perhaps from Mustard Yellow, these words were like proper names to me, parsed in my mind as if they were referring to Mr Cardinal Red and Mrs Nigger Brown [characters like those I would later discover in Cluedo]. I would not describe either my mother or my aunt as racists and, now I think about it, when talking about people both would have said “a black man” or a “coloured woman” – as in “there’s a black man who works at the factory” – and that in the 1950s. I don’t think I ever heard either of them use “Nigger” or “Negro” to talk about people.]

The title of this Blog derives from a 1960s essay by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell entitled, “Must We Mean What We Say?”

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