General Semantics, postmodernism and Wordwizard

Discuss word origins and meanings.

General Semantics, postmodernism and Wordwizard

Post by Phil White » Fri Jan 07, 2005 7:20 pm

Louis recently wrote a response on the "Competence/Competency" thread in the "Usage and Writing" forum.
Semanticly, putting something extra on a word every one uses for one thing, has to indicate something more. I will have to again lament the loss of "General Semantics" in our public dialog. August members of the "arbiter" tribe can bite me!! Keeping from confusing things with their names is important. Keeping courts from Arbitrarying our language out from under us is a responsibility of any jury. If we don't hold them to account by insisting they use 'competency' just for their purposes, as well as someotherwordthan for 'sanity' and 'marriage', we can hopefully aspire to a self governing nation.
As do most of Louis' posts, it raises a couple of issues fundamental to this site. I have no intention of covering anywhere near all the issues, but just to open them up for discussion (should anyone feel so inclined).

Several contributors, including Louis, seem to assume that many of the other regular contributors here belong to the "prescriptivist" school of thought with respect to language and language development. I can't see that myself. The fact that we are interested in historical and current developments in the meanings associated with words does not mean that we cling to a view that language is or should be static (but, of course, I speak for myself). Every language, and English in particular, is constantly changing and many of the changes often appear to be moving in directions which are mutually opposed. My personal interest is in identifying these directions, not in influencing them (quite aside from the fact that that would be a vain hope). Dictionaries and other reference works provide snapshots, mere indications, of how language was used at the time the dictionary was compiled (which in some cases predates publication by many years). They are useful as aids in understanding meaning, but anybody who is tempted to regard them as unchanging law is mistaken.

My own interest as a language professional is always in what people will understand when I choose to use a given word or expression, irrespective of what dictionaries or other "authorities" say, and most of my posts in the past have addressed precisely this issue. I very rarely ask "What is the meaning of xxxx", usually phrasing my question and comments in forms such as
I would still maintain that usage on the streets, at least in the UK, is at variance with what the dictionaries say and that it's not just a peculiar aberration of a small, isolated group of translators.
I assume that the primary purpose of language is communication, and to achieve that, I have to understand as best I can how any utterances I make might be comprehended by the people I am addressing. A dictionary often helps me, but sometimes doesn't, and I still make mistaken assumptions that other people will understand a word or phrase that I use in exactly the way I do. Much of the achievement of postmodernist thinking about language has been to sensitize people to the fact that meaning exists (as Louis never tires of pointing out, but I, personally, tire of reading) only in the mind of the speaker or listener (writer/reader) and is not purely a function of the the name (word) we traditionally use for that meaning. Despite all the care in the world, I can never be absolutely certain that any two people will understand even the same fundamental meaning when they hear/read an utterance of mine, let alone that they will grasp the same nuances and associations that I do.

And yet none of this is the same as saying that there is not a certain underlying commonality of understanding when people use words. Neither does it mean that words do not carry meaning. (If you wish to split hairs over whether words "have" meaning or merely "carry" meaning, be my guest.) And grasping both the commonality and disparity of understanding is, for what it's worth, what I think that much of the discussion on this site aims to do.

Don't get me wrong, deconstruction, reversal and neologisms are all useful (and fun), but they run the risk of being self-deaf-eating when they destroy the potential for communication by undermining the basis on which such communication presently rests, the very alpha-bête of our language.

Ceci n'est pas un mot?
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Post by mongrowl » Fri Jan 07, 2005 10:52 pm

Several contributors, including Louis, seem to assume that many of the other regular contributors here belong to the "prescriptivist" school---
I was wondering what your viewpoint was, and now I have some idea. I am also in a quandary, because one of the worst anti-communications ploys one can commit is to alienate the audience. Both you and Greenwald are supporter types to the establishment of "A Forum to discuss Words". I am not a "JOINER". I did not go looking for a place I can cause trouble, As I KNOW, there are some who do. However, although I will try to ameliorate my prickling&pickling, I know I can not succeed in being non-combative. My passion against the manipulators in the world and disgust with those who mistreat their own minds with bad word-age disallows staying quiet. The sharp end of [ BAD WORD-AGE ] is what I am trying to describe to you and will fail to do so quickly. Your pre-occupation with your profession of "correct use", I will try and support, but your lack of interest in it's miss-use I can not fail to irritate.
Lneil
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Post by dalehileman » Sat Jan 08, 2005 12:10 am

Phil: Alas, the modern trend attaching a new meanings to old words dilutes the Mother Tongue, though there's not much we can do about it. This trend arises from (1) laziness to find exactly the right word, and (2) adapting and old word by stretching its meaning when a new concept arises and there's no better term available. In the latter case, I would much rather see the user invent a new word, but who am I

Your use of "deconstruct" is an interesting case in point. It used to refer to a very specific but abstruse post-structural metaphysical concept; and as far as I know, that is the exact sense you intended. In the meantime, however, it has come to mean emulate, interpret, review, analyze, pick apart, reconstruct, reinvent, etc
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Post by mongrowl » Sat Jan 08, 2005 12:20 am

Dale,
I take it you think the new uses besmirch a good original philosophical term??
Lneil chuckle
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Post by Phil White » Sat Jan 08, 2005 9:41 am

Louis,
I think I have been misunderstood again, despite every attempt to be clear. I don't believe we disagree to the extent you suggest and I for one enjoy many of your posts, although I often find them close to impenetrable.

The team that run the site is a small team who love language. No more, no less. I don't think they or I would claim any authority other than that of experience. I can, however, speak only for myself as a relatively recent member of the forum.

My intention was not to alienate, or even to criticize you, but rather to raise the important issue you so often mention ("keeping from confusing things with their names is important") in a dedicated thread.

Disagreement is the lifeblood of a forum such as this, and it would be a dull place without it.

And yes, manipulative misuse of language is one of the most powerful tools the power-hungry of the world have, and we need to draw attention to it and combat it.
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Post by mongrowl » Sat Jan 08, 2005 10:07 am

Phil, I beg your pardon if I am too vinegary, because I thought our views were not that disparate either, but what set me off a bit was this ---
Much of the achievement of postmodernist thinking about language has been to sensitize people to the fact that meaning exists (as Louis never tires of pointing out, but I, personally, tire of reading)
I read that as " I should tone it down". I am reluctant to do that when I don't think I am out of bounds just yet.
Lneil
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Post by Phil White » Sat Jan 08, 2005 11:57 am

I think the key word is "personally". I don't have a problem with the tone or the message, and I don't see it as out of bounds, far rather as being core to the purpose of the forum. I just like to hear a different record occasionally. My preference, your choice.
Quite apart from which, I'm not the one to decide on where the bounds are here.
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Post by Phil White » Sat Jan 08, 2005 10:49 pm

Dale,
Pin down a specific, singular meaning to "deconstruct"? In its own terms, yours or mine? Tempt me not!
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Post by dalehileman » Sat Jan 08, 2005 11:36 pm

Phil: You might want to check out "deconstruct" in the archives
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Post by Phil White » Sun Jan 09, 2005 1:10 am

Oh dear, my meaning has been missed again.
I was too recent a member of this forum to comment on the relatively recent "deconstruct" thread. I shall catch up now.

My understanding is that the whole purpose of deconstruction as originally conceived by Derrida was to reveal that texts (and words) contain a whole range of views, interpretations and meanings which are as often as not mutually contradictory.

Deconstruction itself is not a singular action, but, if you will, a loosely defined toolbox of methods for arriving at the plurality of meaning (and exclusion of meaning).

In its "philosophical meaning", it has always involved ("meant" if you will) "analysis", "review", "picking apart", "interpretation", "reconstruction", "reinvention" and, perhaps, "emulation". And in its own terms, it is (and always has been) highly likely to bear many other meanings.

The term "deconstruction" has about as much meaning as the word "toolbox". We have a general idea of what it is, but a "toolbox" for an IT engineer means something very different from a "toolbox" for a car mechanic. The precise tools one woman will use for deconstruction will not be the same as those used by another in the same way that an IT engineer will have a very different set of tools in her toolbox as her counterpart in the automotive industry.

My paltry attempt at a little self-referential wit appears to have failed.
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Post by mongrowl » Sun Jan 09, 2005 2:43 am

Oh dear, my meaning has been missed again.
I was too recent a member of this forum to comment on the relatively recent "deconstruct" thread. I shall catch up now.

Phil, Do you want to know what is Really Funny is that paragraph applies to me more than you. Some one else reading ( my short blurb before yours) would have thought I had And have superior knowledge, when in fact I didn't and don't. Both your post and the archive have informed my efforts to understand the Deconstruct term which heretofore was not too much better than that of M-W. My post was BAIT for catching some new thoughts about "word creation" but Hileman didn't even bite. I happen to believe that usurpation and hijacking of terms, in fear of "SINISTER CONSEQUENCE", and "lack of Rules for Expansion" is a good reason for there to be more invention of words. On one hand we have outrage at the loss of perfectly good words and their attendant good consensual meanings, and on the other with a feeling of great need for NEW meaning by someone who wills not to be laughed at, that it makes (for me) hollow, the notion that "CHANGE" in language is necessarily a good sign of health.
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Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sun Jan 09, 2005 8:37 am

A word means precisely what New Labour intends it to mean. But of course the Government cannot be held responsible for what it meant under the previous administration.
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Jan 09, 2005 8:51 am

By which I take you to mean the previous New Labour administration.
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Post by Phil White » Sun Jan 09, 2005 10:05 am

Louis,
The peculiar dichotomy is that on the one hand, change in language is good in that it challenges underlying assumptions about the way in which we perceive and understand our world (postmodernism/deconstruction, General Semantics, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). On the other hand, change can often make communication unnecessarily difficult if there is no consensus and can often be dangerous if it is consciously used to obscure the underlying reality (New Labour, Pentagon).

So on the one hand, we are right to question meanings as handed down to us by the "authorities", and on the other, we are right to cling to them for dear life.
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Post by mongrowl » Sun Jan 09, 2005 3:29 pm

RIGHT ON!!! PHIL
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