Making Words Mean Different Things

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” – From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Humpty Dumpy was not such a wise egg. He believed that he had total control over what words mean, but if he made words mean anything he wanted them to, no one would be able to understand him. Society has to agree on shared meanings for effective communication to be possible. However, powerful people in the past have tried to twist the meaning of words in order to get others to act or think in a certain way.

In George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the writer uses the fictional language of “Newspeak” to make fun of how a fictional repressive regime tried to eliminate personal thought by restricting the expressiveness of language.

Newspeak’s vocabulary was limited so as to give a very reduced range of meaning, while excluding all other possible meanings.  This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by getting rid of undesirable words. For example, the word “free” still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as “The dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds”. It could not be used in its old sense of being “politically free” or “intellectually free”.

In the non-fictional world, some governing bodies try to maintain their language as “pure” by attempting to keep foreign words and expressions entering their language. The Académie Française is the organisation, which moderates the French language. Its primary role is to determine and enforce grammar and vocabulary standards, as well as allow for linguistic progress by adapting the language with the addition of new words and updating the meaning of existing ones. However, in practice, it often seems to focus on retraining the number of English words creeping into French by choosing or inventing French equivalents.

Ultimately however, no organisation is able to prevent a language and the meaning of words changing over time. Languages change with circumstances, often unexpectedly, and we, the people, adapt to and integrate these changes into our speech and writing.

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