Can Words Be Redefined?

orwellThere was a great little piece by John Benton in this months Evangelicals Now addressing the question of whether you can redefine the word ‘marriage’. He used a great example from literature, more of which shortly. But before we get there it’s worth making a few linguistic observations in regards to the question of whether words can be redefined.
Firstly it is true that words have a semantic range, some more broad than others. The word shoe for example can be a noun covering everything from a flip-flop to a snow-boot. It can also be a verb in some sub-cultural usage – i.e. to give someone a good ‘shoeing’ means to physically assault someone.
It is also true that the meaning of a word can shift through time. There was a time when ‘wicked’ meant bad or evil; now, apparently, it can also mean good or excellent (if you’re down wiv da yoof – which I’m clearly not).
However, what you can’t do is simply take the current known usage of a word and decide it means something else. That’s just not how language works. If it was we’d be in a terrible pickle all the time trying to understand one another. I cannot decide that the new definition of car includes lorry – it doesn’t; I don’t have a lorry licence. Nor can we decide that the new meaning of ‘tea’ includes weird fruit or herbal drinks. If someone offers me a cup of tea I think I know what I expect to get.
The usage of words is known and understood within their context of use. So, it seems to me, you can’t simply redefine the word ‘marriage.’ Everyone knows what it means and what is spoken of. To redefine it is an act of linguistic and cultural terrorism which leaves all but the terrorists reeling and confused. So what sort of government would do such a thing? Back to JB’s article. He cites a passage early on George Orwell’s novel, 1984, which is all about life under a totalitarian government. One of the characters in the novel works for Newspeak, the organisation responsible for re-writing the dictionary to change the range and meaning of words available. He says:

“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day . . . It’s a beautiful thing the destruction of words . . . Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year? . . . Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we  shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it . . . The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect”

So what sort of government decides it can redefine words. Orwell would say a totalitarian one. Scary, no?


2 Replies to “Can Words Be Redefined?”

  1. The EU, technically not a government but it depends what the word government means.
    This is QI though: The KJV uses around 8000 different words – about the same amount as The Sun newspaper, though probably not the same ones!

  2. Hi Martin, I think the counter argument would be that you can at any point attempt to redefine a word. After all, that word that means something different now or that has a wider (or narrower) semantic range may well have reached its new definition as a result of what you describe as cultural terrorism. Indeed, it might be that a word’s usage shifts quite dramatically over night because of changing needs. So what feels odd now will be normalised in the future and what was the consensus definition we seem weird in later years

    Isn’t the issue here not so much about the redefinition of a word -but that the whole entity/concept that it refers to has been changed. Can you do that? Well that’s exactly what has been going on. The Parliamentary Act on Marriage is the culmination of a process in terms of presenting a view of relationships in culture and media, what happens in education etc.

    A Government is probably going to find it very difficult to control language (think Community Charge v Poll Tax) -unless other things are already happening in society.

    And that probably means that Christians can’t rely on campaign groups lobbying Parliament. There’s some real groundwork to be done

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