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Keywords: How Do We Know The Meaning?

Anyone that knows me knows how strongly I pay attention to the words we use and understand them by their defined meaning. In my opinion, it is antithetical to accept word usage alone as the means for understanding a word’s meaning, such as the (to me) crass usage of “insure” to mean “to make certain that an outcome will occur” (also the definition for “ensure”), when the correct and only meaning should be “to provide a guarantee of correction in the event of an adverse outcome”. Unfortunately, the fact that word usage and education have become so careless over time has brought us, in less than 40 years, to a place where the meanings of words have changed simply because enough people have slaughtered their usage. Most contemporary dictionaries are satisfied presenting definitions that fit this model of acceptance, and forces the education systems to perpetuate language to the unintelligible. Most baffling to me, is to see so many people in a key insurance industry city like Des Moines, Iowa, use the “insure” in a context unrelated to insurance.

On the other hand, etymology (the study of linguistic history) alone also lacks credibility. It certainly provides significant background on how words came to mean what they do (or at least, how they entered the language initially), but certainly does not provide the constantly changing context of world events, developing knowledge, and technological growth that constantly influences language growth (25 years ago, “email” would have been nothing more than Cockney for “his mail”). And history is proving in the Political realm that word usage can and does change dramatically when discussing social challenges and conflicts.

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Books” section there is an interesting review [1] of a recently published book titled “Keywords for American Cultural Studies”, a collection of articles on a variety of words with significant impact in our society today, edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. I have not read this work, and after reading the review by James Bowman (author of “Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture”), I am somewhat disinclined to consider adding it to my collection. However, I may still look at it for this reason: to understand where others are coming from in their perspectives.

According to Bowman, the book is modeled after Raymond Williams’ work titled “Keywords, A Vocabulary of Culture and Society”. Bowman considers the work of Williams to be of considerable scholarship, usage and etymology, while the current work one of politics and usage. Bowman cites this example: the section on the word “family” (written by University of Maryland Professor Carla L. Stewart) apparently focuses on the negative uses of the word to denigrate non-traditional family structures but takes no time to talk about the uses that promote positive societal values. As Bowman states:

…[Stewart] hails the advent of “brave new families” that are “indifferent to traditional concepts of blood, nuclear structures, and lineage” and are “the result of resourceful and creative action.” Meanwhile, she says, “social conservatives” feebly protest their loss of power “to exclude deviants from the national family.”

Regardless of what you might think of Prof. Peterson’s celebration of the “brave new families,” her discussion leaves out a great deal and begs a lot of questions that those “social conservatives” might want to raise if they were treated as anything but a force of reaction.

Bowman goes on to mention that a number of words that one would expect in a work of this type seem to be missing, such as “reaction”, “socialism”, “sexism”, “racism” and “homophobia”. Interesting. But not unexpected from a “academic” left that has decided that manipulating society to think as they think is the key to a better world.

Did I just write that out loud?

If you are interested in any of the books mentioned, you can find them at the links below. I have read none of these books, and can therefore not commend them at this time, but intend to read the latter two, and am adding all three to my wish-list.

Keywords for American Cultural Studies (Bruce Burgett & Glenn Hendler) [2] (Primary topic of this article)

Keywords: A Vocabular of Culture and Society (Raymond Williams) [3] (Referenced by the article)

Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture (James Bowman) [4] (By the author of the referenced WSJ article)