How many of us can say that we have never spoken loosely, without reflection about the consequences of what we said? Sometimes we speak first and think only afterwards. We say things that may prove damaging, either to us or to other people.
Words are significant. Their significance can be likened to weight. Some words carry more weight than others. A word such as ‘justice’ is weightier than a word like ‘structure.’ At times, we use ‘light weight’ words as if they carried a great deal of significance. At other times we use ‘weighty’ words as if they had very little significance.
It has been said that the meaning of words changes with time. It has even been asserted that words have no meaning at all. Meaning is something we attach to words the way we attach labels to parcels. The parcel itself, the word, is empty. Meaning is something only in the mind of the person. And since different people attach different meanings to the same words, there can never be a common language.
Words represent real experience. Many experiences are common to people. It is on the basis of universal experiences that a shared understanding may grow. If words were meaningless, there would be little demand for lawyers and need for judges to allocate hours exploring the meaning of a clause or a word. There would be little need for definitions. Just because a given word is interpreted differently by different people, it doesn’t follow that the word is meaningless.
The insistence that words at best have merely subjective meaning contributes, in effect, to something that we could call the privatization of language. The privatization of language is a manifestation of our individualism. The consequence of such a privatization is that we are going to be less and less able to communicate with others. Our conversations will take on an increasingly superficial character.
There is an attempt to make language politically correct. This language claims to be free of biases and prejudices, especially value judgments. There are few opposites in such a language, such as good and evil, right and wrong, graceful and disgraceful. Opposites, according to this argument, divide people and people should live in harmony. But by banishing words expressing approval and disapproval, we cast away our ability to differentiate good and evil, to praise or to blame. We succumb to the world of nihilism where everything is acceptable because nothing is unacceptable.
The process of neutralizing language takes place through a substitution of words by weaker, more neutral expressions that frequently sound like euphemisms. When we lay off people and jeopardize their security, we call it ‘downsizing’ or ‘right sizing.’ We say ‘equity’ instead of justice, ‘relationships’ replace marriage, a husband or wife becomes a mere ‘partner,’ loyalty becomes a ‘commitment,’ adultery becomes a mere ‘affair,’ and gambling becomes mere ‘gaming.’
Some words are disappearing from language altogether. It seems as if these words were banned, especially from public discourse. To justify the expulsion of these words from daily language, we are told that the gradual disappearance of these words is due to “progress.” Society is evolving, and language evolves alongside the society. Nothing may stop progress, and therefore there is little need to worry about words taking on fresh meanings or the disappearance of a few words.
What are the disappearing words, and why are we so reluctant to use them? They are traditional words, words that have close links with morality. They are words like virtue, duty, loyalty, jealousy, selfishness, adultery, betrayal, modesty, chastity, nobility, grace, soul, spirit, wisdom and others[i].
We refrain from using traditional terms by asserting that they express antiquated perceptions or experiences. But do they?
Many words that are not banished are used selectively or in restricted ways. The process of making financial transactions has appropriated traditional language. Thus we now say that we “redeem” bonds and promissory notes, when we refer to the act of meeting our financial obligations. Instead of honoring our parents, we now talk about honoring or dishonoring checks.