Notes on Meaning and Language

November 12, 2008

Freddie has a new post up defending language.  I’ll have further thoughts later tonight/tomorrow, once I work my way through Stephen Fry’s comments he’s responding to.  But some initial thoughts:

Talking of Orwell, he writes,

“But the man knew the consequences of allowing language to lose actual meaning. If words are allowed to be stripped of their specific meaning by misuse, and by the reverse snobbery of faux-populist appeals to letting the people have it the way they want, we’ll be left with just more “double plus ungoods”, sad shades of poetic and meaningful language.”

I forget the exact situation, but a few weeks ago, I overheard part of a discussion in which one speaker was prompted to use fewer, but more precise words.  The response was that being forced to limit her vocabulary was Orwellian, no different than his Newspeak.  The problem, of course, was that she was was the one coming closer to indulging in it by separating words from their meaning; her interlocutor wanted more precise terminology, not unmeaningful blather that sounded, at first glance, more full.

Such separations are a necessary first step towards a Newspeak-like language.  If words still retain their meanings, their destruction will not be met with indifference — and, more importantly, will not happen.  Words with meaning are living words; words without meaning are dead.  (Note an important distinction here: Ancient languages are dead, but their words, insofar as they still are capable of meaning, are alive; if grammar and syntax are the body of a language, words are its soul.)  The “abuse” of language is abusive not because it changes the meaning–this happens in any living language–but because it hinders the ability of meaning to adhere to that word.

Hence my general distaste for euphemism, particularly in the political sphere.  If you say “passed away” for “died” I won’t complain.  But when we get things like “enhanced interogation” for “torture,” not only is it far more Orwellian than the companion of that girl I was eavesdropping on, but it separates meaning in two important instances.  The euphemism itself has a non-meaning.  “This is torture,” it says, “but it is also not torture.”  We know the word it is meant to replace, and we know that it has been replaced by a sack of air.  The act itself that is being discussed — regardless of one’s opinion of it — loses meaning.  Meaning is separated from deed as well as word.

And, in the future, the word “torture” becomes more and more meaningless, because it has become disassociated from the act it is meant to describe.  We move to the less precise terminology, “enhanced interogation.”  “Torture” becomes meaningless; we cannot conceive of torture; we are indifferent to torture; there is no torture.  But some of the meaning previously ascribed to “torture” does adhere to “enhanced interogation,” because language is alive.  From here–provided there is no effort to stop it–there’s just the simple task of wash, rinse, repeat until we get to the minimalist horror-poetry that is Newspeak.

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7 Responses to “Notes on Meaning and Language”


  1. […] has already linked to his great post on federalism and the future of the GOP, and now J.L. has some spectacular stuff to say at his home blog on the abuse of people and the abuse of language: If you say “passed […]


  2. […] as Greenwald would say, as Very Serious People.  I wonder if this has anything to do with JL’s post yesterday… No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI […]


  3. […] comments on Freddie’s comments on Stephen Fry’s thoughts on language afford me an opportunity to […]


  4. […] Also: “Notes on Meaning and Language” Posted in history, language | Tags: genocide, George Orwell, […]


  5. […] As I’ve acknowledged before, I don’t really know how to write about torture. (My co-blogger is much better at that.) What I do know, however, is that I’m sick to frigging death of people – […]


  6. […] you don’t have time for either 1984 or “Politics and the English Language,” these old posts of mine may get at it well […]


  7. […] points toward something particularly sinister about, among other things, The Long War: its corruption of language.  How do we distinguish between the War in Iraq and the semi-militarized 1990s — […]


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