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Shifty with words

Don’t let a revolution in terminology be a knock-down argument


When Lewis Carroll’s Alice goes Through the Looking-Glass, she finds a world turned upside down—especially in regard to words. Trying to have a sensible conversation only makes her head hurt. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her meeting with Humpty Dumpty, who takes nothing she says at face value and loves a nice knock-down argument: “There’s glory for you!”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean a ‘nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“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.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I’ve encountered this passage a lot lately, in reference to current convulsions in the English language. Words are shifty things that echo what a culture is thinking, but they usually take their own sweet time to shift. Unless a revolution is underway, as in the 1790s, when French Jacobins insisted that “Sir” and “Madame” be replaced with “Citizen” and “Citizeness.” Vocabulary by diktat usually lasts only as long as the diktat-ors, but Humpty Dumpty is correct: General acceptance of a term depends on who’s winning the argument.

For instance, the terms sex and gender used to be interchangeable. Then they separated, the former referring to biology and the latter to identity. But in the brave new world of gender ideology, sex is something we do, not something we are. At WriteInclusion.org, the “Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity” doesn’t define sex at all, but has plenty to say about “Gender Binary,” “Gender Expansive,” and “Gender Inequality.”

The group’s 13-page “Expanded Glossary” offers guidance for writers and media professionals on a wide field of verbiage, such as “haka” (a Maori ceremonial dance), “Melanesia” (a subregion of Oceania), “code-switching” (using more than one language in a conversation), “tiki culture” (a cultural appropriation), “tiger parenting,” “DACA,” “Islamophobia,” and “womxn” (a term for a gender that eliminates “man” but might be offensive to nonbinary people). Some of these glossary definitions could be useful, some are questionable, and almost all tilt leftward but present themselves as gospel truth.

“Gender binary,” for example, is “the false, long-held societal and cultural categorization of gender into just two distinct and opposite terms.” “Allah,” however, is the “same God worshipped by adherents of [Muslim,] Christian and Jewish faiths”—a false cultural categorization if there ever was one. But then, the document, which gives ample space to Islamic, Buddhist, Druze, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Yazidi faiths, never defines Christianity or Judaism.

Outdated terms that must change are “Middle East” (a relic of colonialism that ignores North Africa—use “MENA” instead), “Internment” (which soft-pedals Japanese American incarceration), and “slave.” “Enslaved person” is preferred, because it “separates a person’s identity from his/her circumstance.”

Outdated ideas include the “medical model of disability,” which assumes that all so-called handicaps should be corrected if possible. The approved “social model” puts the onus on society to fill any gaps caused by a person’s impairment. And pay attention when “Disability” is capitalized: That means the person who claims the adjective identifies with it. For example, a Deaf person identifies with a culture and community, while a deaf person simply can’t hear.

Stereotypes? “Mean girl,” “dragon lady,” and “damsel in distress” are all ways to denigrate women. However, “patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity” are not stereotypes but the poisoned root of such evils as the wage gap, homophobia, mansplaining, and segregated bathrooms. WriteInclusion.org passes lightly over actual terrorism and violence: “Jihad” simply means to “strive and struggle for God,” and blatant Chinese aggression against Hong Kong is, er, “quite complex.”

Language has been a battleground ever since the serpent asked Eve what God really said. In the current struggle for mastery, the revolutionaries seem to have the advantage, but the Creator of language has the definitions. Rest in that, and in any debate never fail to ask, “What do you mean by that?”


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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SAWGUNNER

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