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COMMENTARY: Beware the elastic dictionary

by BRENT REGAN/Common Sense
| July 8, 2022 1:00 AM

George Orwell’s "1984" popularized the idea that if you can control language you can control thought, and if you control thought you control action. One cannot start a revolution if there are no words to describe a revolution.

Beyond "1984", words are being stretched and their meanings twisted to serve various social and political agendas. The classic children’s rhyme “ … but words can never hurt me,” has been abandoned and now words are violence and if you say the wrong word you can be shamed or even arrested. Adding to the problem is that the meanings of words are not fixed.

You may say that we have dictionaries for defining the meanings of words. Is that what dictionaries do? Or do they just list most of the possible meanings of a word.

If you are looking for the exact meaning of a word, good luck. Simple words like “run,” “set,” “go,” “take,” “stand,” “get” and “turn” each have hundreds of meanings. It is a wonder language works at all.

The keys to being able to communicate accurately are context and punctuation. Combinations of words supply the context that limits the potential meanings to the desired one. Punctuation bounds the word clusters and adds emphasis. Removing a simple comma changes an invitation to a happy dinner “Let’s eat, Grandma!” into a call for cannibalism, “Let’s eat Grandma!”

Even if you carefully assemble words to convey an idea there is no guarantee that what you intend to imply is what is inferred by the reader. In the age of Cancel Culture and Twitter, misinterpreting what was written has become the Sport of Trolls, a game where words are twisted out of context, amplified, and portrayed as a crime against humanity. This is the internet equivalent of excrement flinging at the primate exhibit.

Not satisfied with simply taking words out of context, some writers add meaning to the word itself. This addition takes advantage of the natural phenomenon where changes in culture and technology add to the evolution of language and dictionaries are periodically updated to reflect these new words and meanings.

If you can popularize your own added meaning then the dictionaries will eventually codify the change. If that new meaning evokes a powerful feeling or emotion then all the words' meanings are tainted.

An example came to us in the June 29 editorial that pronounced “Nationalism is a growing American cancer.” Cancer? Nobody wants cancer. The writer went on to cite the authority of the Oxford dictionary “Nationalism is identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”

When I read “especially to the exclusion or detriment” it occurred to me that this part was new. Consulting a pre-1984 version of the Oxford dictionary I found the old definition for Nationalism: n. patriotic feeling; policy of national independence.

I also looked up Patriotism: n. loyally supporting one’s country. So the classical definition of nationalism is the desire to have a country and patriotism is the willingness to support that country.

The writer also created new definitions; “patriotism is the desire to change your country's course when you think it's headed the wrong way,” “Nationalists believe their nation is never wrong and thus is justified in any action it takes.” What? Not even the online dictionary supports these definitions, so this is new territory.

What kind of a person promotes the belief wanting national independence is a cancer and that it is patriotic to want to change your country? I can think of one, a globalist.

A globalist seeks to strip away the protections afforded by a national union and would try to convince you that patriotism is “change,” including the dissolution of national borders and the subjugation of the citizens.

Our founder’s yearnings of nationalism created this nation and gave birth to American Exceptionalism. Quoting President Lincoln, “Our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Our founders were, by definition, nationalists.

Is this nationalism “sinister," “infantile" and “self-deception” as the writer claims? Do these adjectives apply to recognized Native American nationalism? No to both.

I am proud of my nation, the United States of America, one nation under God, indivisible. This makes me an American Nationalist.

Do not let the Orwellian wordsmiths deny you the words to think and express your true beliefs.

It’s just common sense.

• • •

Brent Regan is a Kootenai County active citizen.

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