Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Teaching about words

A thoughtful reader asks in regard to my post about "fatherland":

"Why is it, whenever someone taints a word, that we jettison that word rather than re-teach its original context? It seems like we are compounding the wrong when we choose to avoid such terms rather than draw the fire out of them through proper usage. Observe how people are treated when they use the word niggardly, and the term has nothing to do with race."

As a language nerd, I'm sympathetic to this argument. But I just don't think it works. Not in real life.

Let's imagine trying to re-teach "fatherland." In the first place, the problem isn't with the definition itself, it's with the connotation of the word. Teaching people what they "should" hear when they hear a given word isn't easy. I know what the meaning of the word is, I know the German meaning of the word it's derived from, and it still sticks in my craw, and always has.

It's like with "gay." I've heard arguments that we shouldn't cede the word to mean "homosexual," but it's a lost cause. And on one level, we should have pity on homosexual activists. Because now the word "gay" has come to mean -- for those 20 and below, which likely means it will retain this meaning for a very long time as these folks grow into adulthood -- something like "dorky" or stupid. So my daughter will say, "He's so gay," and I jokingly ask, "Meaning 1, 2, or 3?" 1 -- the older argument, as in bright, colorful, cheerful, 2, homosexual, or 3, loser.

Or "propaganda," which was another casualty of WWII. Prior to the 20th century, it had more of a meaning like we think of "advertising." But that is no more.

Words are funny things. Their meanings are more fluid than we like to imagine. I'm a big believer in holding fast to meanings, and carefully defining words. But in the end they mean what they mean, especially when it's a term in common usage.

In a real sense, no one has tainted the word "fatherland." I do it myself every time I hear the word. It sounds Germanic, it frankly has a connotation of the Nazis, and there's not a lot I can do about that. I know it's an English word, and I know it is not intended in the slightest to remind me of the Nazis. Maybe it won't sound that way in 100 years. But I suspect there's a lot of people like myself for whom it's still a problem.

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