Does everything have meaning?

What is the meaning of rain? No, really -what, if anything does it mean? If we ask the same question of Life, we understand immediately the type of answer required, so what is different about rain? Both are processes, of sorts, although rain has the added advantage of also being a thing -both palpable and visible- I suppose. But should that disqualify it from having meaning?

Meaning is something that stretches beyond the thing described, and expands it in ways perhaps not obvious at first glance: beyond just descriptive definition, beyond attempts at capturing it with a synonym -those are mere tautologies and add little clarity beyond finding other words to say the same thing.

It would be all too tempting to resort to simply describing rain’s cause -its meteorological significance; or suggesting its value in the sustenance of Life -but these would only describe its purpose -what it does- not its meaning. There is surely more to rain than water falling from the sky, just as there is more to Life than growth, reproduction, and change.

No, it seems to me that meaning points to something else, and a grammatical equivalent might be something like a metaphor.

I suspect it was an essay in Aeon by Jeremy Mynott, an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, that rekindled my wonder about meaning in the world around us:

As he suggests, ‘Sometimes you need to look at things from outside to see them more clearly.’ And history can do that for many things -birds, for example. Before the days of over-population with its attendant pollution and habitat destruction, the much smaller aggregations of humanity were more intimately exposed to the perils -and beauty- that surrounded them.

‘The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl. The cities themselves were in any case tiny by modern standards – ancient Athens, for example, had a population of about 120,000 at the height of its power in the 5th century BC.’

Things in nature impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives to a degree now hard to imagine. ‘Not surprising either, therefore, that they also populated people’s minds and imaginations and re-emerged in their culture, language, myths and patterns of thought in some symbolic form.’ Some things -birds in his essay, at least- acquired a meaning beyond their mere physical presence.

Because Mynott is writing about the ‘meaning’ of birds, he goes on to describe how they became metaphors -there is ‘a simple progression from a descriptive fact about a bird (swallows migrate here the same time every spring), to a human comparison (that’s when we change what we wear, too) and then, in a natural and almost imperceptible segue, to making the bird represent something other than itself (a sign of spring, a reminder to start gardening, a valued guest). That is, a metaphor, something that ‘carries us across’ from one dimension of meaning to another.’

I think there is a very obvious parallel with other aspects of the natural world, too -rain, for example. And where he supplies examples of proverbs to bolster his contention of how the idea of birds has migrated into the realm of metaphor: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, there is certainly an equivalence in rain proverbs that do the same: ‘You need to save for a rainy day’, or ‘Rain does not fall on one roof alone’.

Metaphors work by having one thing stand symbolically for another, and by so doing, achieve a meaning far larger than the original.

When my children were young and beginning to learn the intricacies of language, they sounded very literal -so much so, that at times it was difficult to explain things to them without endlessly searching for another word to use for clarification: definition again. And yet, often they seemed to be searching for something more than description -and the perpetual ‘Why?’ questions that dog every parent are testament to that. No matter the skillfulness of the answer, it is seldom enough to satisfy their inner quest.

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily indicative of children’s innate need for meaning so much as simple curiosity born of insufficient exposure to the world -or perhaps incipient mischievousness- but it is interesting that it seems to be a search for more than just a cursory explanation. Perhaps it is a developing awareness that there is more to reality than surface -an early, and tentative, exploration of Philosophy.

“Why does it rain, daddy?” my little daughter once asked. I remember the question because of her drive to understand more about rain.

“Well,” I started, unsure of the answer, to be honest, “… you know how sometimes the air around you feels wet in the summer?” I was on shaky ground already, but I pressed on when she nodded her head enthusiastically. “And sometimes if you look really hard you can see little water droplets on the window glass?”

I have to admit I was making it up as I went along, but her little face seemed so eager for more, I embellished it a bit. “Well, those drops appear when wet air touches something cool like the glass in the window. It’s called condensation,” I added, but more for my sake than hers, I think.

“So, is that where rain comes from, daddy?” She was obviously confused that windows didn’t usually rain.

“Uhmm, no but it was just a way of explaining that wet air sometimes condenses on cold things, and it’s really cold way up in the sky…”
“So…” I could almost see her processing the information behind her eyes. “So, are there windows up in the sky…?” That didn’t seem right to her, I could tell.

“No, but there are little particles of dust up there, and they’re really cold, so water droplets condense on them. And when there are a lot of them, you see them as clouds…” I was way beyond my depth, so I rather hoped she’d be satisfied with that. But I could see by her face that the machinery inside was still churning.

“So, clouds are rain before it falls…” There, I had told her all I knew about rain -more than I knew, in fact.

Suddenly, a large smile grew on her face, and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “You’re just kidding me, aren’t you daddy?”

My heart sank. We were walking along a trail in the woods at the time, and had stopped to rest in a little clearing; I hadn’t thought to bring an encyclopedia. I can still remember the flowers peeking through the grass like children thinking they could hide in plain sight and I shrugged to hide my embarrassment. “What do you mean, sweetheart?”

She grabbed my hand and looked up at my face. “There’s more to rain than clouds, daddy…”

I tried to look like the wise parent, but she was having none of it.

“Why do you say that, sweetie?” I said and held my breath.

She sighed and rolled her eyes like she’d seen me do so often. Then she pointed to an enormous fluffy cloud that was floating lazily just over our heads. “Miss Janzen at kindergarten says that rain happens when clouds cry…”

I didn’t know whether to nod in agreement -it was a kind of vindication of my explanation- or stay still, in case it was a trap.

She suddenly blinked and stared at the cloud. “You can tell that cloud doesn’t have any rain in it…” I smiled and waited for the explanation. “It looks happy, doesn’t it…?”

I’m not sure, but I suspect my daughter already knew about metaphors, even if she’d never heard the word… and perhaps she’d grasped the meaning of rain, as well…

Here’s ado to lock up honesty

Sometimes I think we want to simplify things too much; we crave bichromality: on or off, yes or no. We want certainty, not a spectrum. An answer, not another question -a decision, in other words. And yet if we stop to look around, it seems obvious that things are seldom black or white -there are colours everywhere.

Relationships are no different -how could they be when two unique individuals are involved? When evaluated over any period of time, they are in constant flux. Contingent. Their often turbulent waters involve negotiation -one might even say navigation. There are no reliable maps -and unless there is local knowledge, ‘Here be dragons’ like those drawn on medieval charts in areas where there was insufficient information to avoid dangers.

Even initial reassurance may require sudden modification depending upon the conditions -we cannot always know in advance how things will work out. Indeed, the very fragility of the substrate is one of the important reasons why we are so enamoured with fine porcelain, with delicate lacework, with Trust.

But relationships, except in a legal and sometimes transactional sense, are seldom maintained by official written contracts -it’s more of an understanding, verbal or otherwise. This is fine, of course, but susceptible to misunderstanding or deliberate deception. Vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in either partner. Difficulties in effective communication…

Words, words, words,’ says Hamlet to Polonius. It almost doesn’t need an explanation, does it? Similar to his ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ -although admittedly in a different context. But the meaning is clear: one can hide behind a curtain of sound, or a reassuring appearance, so that what is being conveyed may be confusing -purposely, or accidentally.

The problem, I suppose, is in knowing the intent of either one of the participants and its effects on the other. This is especially important in sexual matters where effective communication often lags behind the actions, and frequently is restricted to vague, initial permission followed by hormonal dictates.

It is a subject that people often feel reluctant to talk much about beforehand. Meanings of words and actions can change in the heat of battle, making prior negotiation -setting ground rules, and such- important. Sexual dialogue is not something taught particularly well in School Health Classes, so I was pleased to find an article in Aeon that was willing to tackle it head on.

The author, Rebecca Kukla, is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She explores the language of sexual negotiation. ‘Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean.’ She writes that, ‘all speech acts are governed by what philosophers call ‘felicity norms’ and ‘propriety norms’. Felicity norms are the norms that make a certain speech act a coherent possibility… I can’t name someone else’s baby just because I feel like it, by shouting a name at it. These would be infelicitous speech acts. ‘Propriety norms are norms that make a speech act situationally appropriate. So, although I have the authority to order my son to clean his room, it would be a massive norm violation for me to walk into his classroom at school and shout at him to clean his room in the middle of class.’

‘In public discussions about the ethics of sexual communication, we have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech when it comes to ethical sex… Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you. Paradigmatically, consent (or refusal of consent) is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position. And in practice, given cultural realities, our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her.’

And yet, ‘Autonomous, willing participation is necessary for ethical sex, but it is not sufficient. We can autonomously consent to all sorts of bad sex, for terrible reasons. I might agree to do something that I find degrading or unpleasantly painful, for instance, perhaps because I would rather have bad sex than no sex at all, or because my partner isn’t interested in finding out what would give me pleasure.’

‘Usually, when all goes well, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests… But when I’m trying to establish intimacy with someone as I am getting to know them, an invitation is more typical and likely more conducive to good, flourishing sex than a request… Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter.’ An invitation to dinner, for example. And ‘An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.’

‘A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding… Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.’

Kukla goes on to talk about when and if invitations are appropriate, and then about such issues as ‘gifts’ of sex in long-term relationships, as well as the sociology of gifting. But her discussion of ‘safe words’ I think is one of the most important topics she covers. So, ‘Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously (for instance, by accepting an invitation), we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely. Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity.’

‘Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing (although they can also be used when there has been a transgression)… One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral… We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context.’

And, as she suggests, ‘Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily.’ But, of course, ‘safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity – all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well.’

Unfortunately, the ‘strong social tendency to focus our discussions of sexual negotiation on consent and refusal has resulted in a narrowed and distorted view of the pragmatics of sexual communication. Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent.’ Kukla feels that ‘sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication – including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.’

There is so much more to communication than words, isn’t there -and so much more to words than meets the ear?  Hamlet again: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’

To wear an undeserved dignity


Lately, I’ve been worried about dignity -not my own, you understand, although I’m sure that could use a little work. I’m more concerned that what I assumed was an inherent quality possessed -if not always demonstrated- by us all, may not be as innate as I thought. An essay in the online publication Aeon, by Remy Debes, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis entitled Dignity is Delicate, helped me to understand some of its issues:

The word itself is derived from the Latin dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, but as with most words, it can be used in different ways, each with slightly different meanings. ‘Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank… Much more common is the family of meanings associated with self-esteem and integrity, which is what we tend to mean when we talk of a person’s own ‘sense of dignity’… Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.’

This latter aspect, which Debes calls the ‘moralized connotation’ ‘is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons.’ As Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785: ‘ whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.’ He also argued that we have a duty to treat other humans ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ -with respect, in other words. Unfortunately, ‘the Groundwork wasn’t professionally translated until 1836. And even that translation wasn’t easily available until a revised edition appeared in 1869.’

So, in terms of its moral and ethical aspects, the concept of dignity is a recent one. ‘[U]ntil at least 1850, the English term ‘dignity’ had no currency as meaning anything like the ‘unearned worth or status of humans’, and very little such currency well into the 1900s. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed.’

What am I missing here? As Debes illustrates in his essay, ‘the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder.’ So what is going on? Debes thinks ‘The primary way we have dealt with this shock and the hypocrisy it marks has been to tell ourselves a story – a story of progress… the story’s common hook is the way it moves the ‘real’ hypocrisy into the past: ‘Our forebears made a terrible mistake trumpeting ideas such as equality and human dignity, while simultaneously practising slavery, keeping the vote from women, and so on. But today we recognise this hypocrisy, and, though it might not be extinct, we are worlds away from the errors of the past.’

Of course, a still different way of explaining our abysmal lack of dignity is to suggest, not that we are getting better, but that we are getting worse -that there was a time when it was not so, and we need try going back to that ‘better time’.

Uhmm, they can’t both be correct. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed the presence of gerunds (verbs functioning as nouns with –ing endings), or implied gerunds, in the description: from the Latin gerundum –‘that which is to be carried on’. In other words, that which is not yet completed, or is in the process of happening, and hopefully will be so in the indefinite future.  As Debes writes, ‘facing up to the hypocrisy in our Western ethos requires resisting the temptation to scapegoat both the past and the present. We must not divorce ourselves from the fact that the present is possible only because of our past, the one we helped to create. Likewise, the existential question isn’t, are we really who we say we are? The question is, have we ever been?’

But why is everything so viscid? Humans have always been seen as valuable -the concept evolving through time. ‘The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, praises man as the most ‘wondrous’ thing on Earth, a prodigy cutting through the natural world the way a sailor cuts through the ‘perilous’, ‘surging seas’ that threaten to engulf him.’ The word ‘dignity’ was not used, but it seems to me he was on the right track, although perhaps not in the sense that mankind’s value was incommensurable and couldn’t be exchanged for other kinds of worth as Kant had concluded.

Or how about Aristotle: ‘Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’

Even Shakespeare’s Hector says to Troilus about whether Helen of Troy is worth going to war for: Value dwells not in a particular will; it holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ‘tis precious of itself as in the prizer. In other words, value -dignity- isn’t subjective, it’s intrinsic.

So what has kept us from believing in that ‘inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally’? Admittedly we are children of our era, and very few of us can escape from the Weltanschauung of our time, let alone the political and social ethos in which we find ourselves embedded. There is much that conspires to homogenize and temper our views, I suspect.

Maybe it was as simple as a fear of the unknown, and fear of disruption, that kept the lid on the pot -better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Moral dignity –ethical dignity- did not accord with the status quo: keeping slaves, or a class system that offered wealth and status to the powerful; women were trapped in a never-ending cycle of pregnancies and children, and so were themselves essentially biologically enslaved… A clock will not work unless all of the parts are in their proper places.

So many levels: civilization -well, at least culture– has always been a matryoshka doll –‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, as Winston Churchill so famously said about Russia. But maybe, concealed inside the innermost layer, the sanctum sanctorum of the inner doll, a flower lives, not a minotaur.

We can only hope.



















Understanding as…

There is so much stuff out there that I don’t know -things that I hadn’t even thought of as knowledge. Things that I just accepted as ‘givens’.  You know, take the ability to understand something like, say, an arrangement of numbers as a series rather than a bunch of numbers, or the ability to extract meaning from some sounds -for example words spoken in English- and yet not others in a different language.

And, perhaps equally mysterious is the moment when that epiphany strikes. What suddenly changes those numbers into a series? Is it similar to what makes figure-ground alterations flip back and forth in my head: aspect perception? Is it analogous to the assignation of meaning to things -or, indeed, picking them out of the chaos of background and recognizing them as somehow special in the first place? Is it what Plato meant when he referred to the Forms –‘chairness’ or ‘tableness’ for example- abstractions that allow us to identify either, no matter how varied the shapes or sizes -the true essence of what things really are?

I suppose I’m becoming rather opaque -or is it obtuse?- but the whole idea of aspect perception, of ‘seeing as’, is an exciting, yet labyrinthine terra incognita, don’t you think? I’m afraid that what started it all was an essay in the online Aeon publication:

It was the edited version of an essay written by Stephen Law, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He begins by discussing some of the figure-ground changes found in, say Necker cubes whose sides keep flipping back and forth (a type of aspect perception) and then suggests that ‘A[nother] reason why changes in aspect perception might be thought philosophically significant is that they draw our attention to the fact that we see aspects all the time, though we don’t usually notice we’re doing so… For example, when I see a pair of scissors, I don’t see them as a mere physical thing – I immediately grasp that this is a tool with which I can do various things.’

Another example might be ‘…our ability to suddenly ‘get’ a tune or a rule, so we are then able to carry on ourselves.’ Or, how about religion? ‘The idea of ‘seeing as’ also crops up in religious thinking. Some religious folk suggest that belief in God doesn’t consist in signing up to a certain hypothesis, but rather in a way of seeing things.’ But then the caveat: ‘Seeing something as a so-and-so doesn’t guarantee that it is a so-and-so. I might see a pile of clothes in the shadows at the end of my bed as a monster. But of course, if I believe it’s a monster, then I’m very much mistaken.’

I have always loved wandering around bookstores. Maybe it’s an asylum -a refuge from the noisy street, or a spiritual sanctuary in a chaotic mall -but it’s more likely that the range and choice of books allows me to exercise an epiphanic region of my brain, and to practice ‘seeing as’ to my heart’s content. I’d never thought of bookstores as exercise before, of course, but I suppose the seed of ‘understanding as’ was sown by that article… or maybe it was the little girl.

Shortly after reading the essay, I found myself wandering blissfully through the quiet aisles of a rather large bookstore that seemed otologically removed from the noisy mall in which it hid. Coloured titles greeted me like silent hawkers in a park, the ones that sat dislodged from their otherwise tidy rows, sometimes reaching out to me with greater promise: curiosity, as to why someone might have dislodged them, perhaps. But nonetheless, I also found myself amused at their choices: book shops are catholic in the selection they proffer and I relish the opportunity to switch my perspectives… and expand my Weltanschauung, as the Philosophy section into which I had meandered might have put it when the thought occurred.

Of course, unexpected concepts like that are one of the delights of a bookstore -turn a corner into a different aisle and the world changes. It’s where I met the little girl talking to her mother about something in a book she was holding.

No more than four or five years old, she was wearing what I suppose was a pink Princess costume, and trying to be very… mature. Her mother, on the other hand, was dressed for the mall: black baseball cap, jeans, sneakers, and a grey sweatshirt with a yellow mustard stain on the front. Maybe they’d just come from a party, or, more likely, the Food Court, but the mother was trying to explain something in the book to her little daughter. The aisle wasn’t in the children’s section, but seemed to have a lot of titles about puzzles, and illusions, so maybe they’d wandered into it for something different: for surprises.

As I pretended to examine some books nearby, I noticed a Necker’s cube prominently displayed on the page the girl was holding open.

“Why does it do that, mommy?” Even as she spoke the perspective of the cube was flipping back and forth, with one face, then another seeming to be closer.

The mother smiled at this obvious teaching moment.

“It’s a great idea, anyway,” the daughter continued, before she got an answer.

“Idea…?” the mother said, with a patient look on her face. “What’s the idea, Angie?”

Angie scrunched her forehead and gave her mother a rather condescending look. “It’s an exercise book, remember?”

That apparently caught the mother by surprise. “It’s a book of puzzles and magic, sweetheart. I didn’t see any exercises.”

Angie rolled her eyes at her mother’s obvious obtuseness. “The nexercise cube, mommy…!”

Necker’s cube, sweetie,” she responded, trying to suppress a giggle. “It’s not an exercise cube.”

But Angie was having none of that, and stared at her like a teacher with a slow pupil. “It keeps making my mind move, mommy!” She shook her head in an obviously disappointed rebuke. “That’s exercise.”

I slipped back around the corner, unnoticed by them both I think. I felt I’d intruded on a very intimate moment and I didn’t want to trespass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Angie had come far closer to understanding Plato’s Forms than her mother or I could ever hope to.

Medical Revisionism

Words -that’s all they are: sounds that by their very presence magically communicate meaning. They are more than mere noise or background. They are not the wind rustling through the leaves, nor the sounds of a frog in a pond; in a way, they are entities that resolve uncertainty, and in as much as they can be interpreted, contain information. Data. So, in a sense, they transcend Time: the information in the words of an ancient document still exists. But information is subject to interpretation; the same data may be seen as having different meaning as time and societal norms change. But does that change the information conveyed? I think not.

I’ve covered this topic in previous blogs (for example: ) but the topic is a source of continuing intrigue for me, so I was once again interested in seeing it broached in an article in the BBC News last fall:  It seems we are constant and insatiable revisionists. It’s as if by changing the descriptor, we somehow alleviate the pejoration its ancestor accumulated. And yet the information remains; only the colour changes.

I suppose that this is useful, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some other way of doing it. Of course, some words seemed to have been coined originally with a belittling intent -Cripple springs to mind- and even without our penchant for viewing the machinations of history through modern eyes, the word is disparaging; it is simply not fair. It derives from the Old English word crypel which has the suggestion of creeping. It was a condition in clear need of a new term.

Other words were more naively-attempted descriptions –designations that were no doubt thought to help others picture what was being named. There was unlikely to have been any attempt at denigration -despite how they might now offend or upset us. Mongolism is one such term. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:mongol, or Mongoloid, was adopted in the late 19th century to refer to a person with Down syndrome (named after John L. H. Down [1828–96], the English physician who first described it), owing to the similarity of some of the physical symptoms of the disorder with the normal facial characteristics of eastern Asian people. The syndrome itself was thus called mongolism.’ But the problem remains –what happens when the term ‘Down Syndrome’ itself also becomes offensive?

Sometimes, it seems to me, the words will also change for no apparent reason. Think of the various expression changes for sexual diseases over the years and the somewhat clumsy attempts to strip the prejudice out of them. When I first started medical school, the expression was ‘venereal disease’ –or VD. Then, when that became too pejorative, or at least discriminatory, it morphed into STD (‘sexually transmitted disease’), and currently STI for ‘sexually transmitted infection’… Or am I already out-of-date? The reason for any of these transformations, however, is totally beyond me.

Words, it seems –or maybe it’s me– just can’t keep up. Maybe, like Fashion, they’re bound to change because of user-boredom or a need for novelty, but I think it’s probably deeper than that. I suspect that it relates more to societal attitudes than societal ennui. And I think that it may be a lost cause to expect consistency of usage. As we change our approach to issues and our opinions, so we change our words to describe them. It starts off with the more curmudgeonly amongst us –usually those for whom tradition provides a stable and secure platform- proclaiming the changes to be ‘political correctness’- to use the current phrase. But then, gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, the expression achieves a common parlance and not using it courts sideways glances, or even incomprehension. It is, perhaps, an aurally measurable example of society’s changing attitudes, if not its mores.

My biggest complaint, however –although minor in the scheme of things- is that it seems a waste of perfectly good words. One of my favourite ones ‘awe’ and its brother ‘awesome’ which used to bespeak a form of reverence, was ripped from my useful vocabulary only a few years ago and I’ve never really gotten over it. The words now have little value -they’re the scrapings from a different, grander time. Crumbs. Leftovers.

I am reminded of the words of Moth, the page of the soldier Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost by Shakespeare: ‘They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.’ 

The Linguistic Pregnancy

What is pregnancy? What’s in a name, for that matter..? Is it true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or is there something in the name itself that alters and affects that to which it refers? Neo-Whorfianism, in other words…

For example, the Chinese word for what we in English call ‘pregnancy’ is youxi (transliterated, of course). If you break it apart, though, it is composed of two Chinese characters: you –which means something like ‘to have’ and xi which means ‘joy’ or words to that effect. Only when strung together as a unit, does it mean ‘pregnancy’.

There are many other similar examples, of course; the one that comes to mind here in bilingual Canada is the French word for pregnancy: la grossesse –largeness. Or how about Spanish: embarazada –etymologically it derives from the same root as does the English ‘embarrassed’.

But is this really telling us anything important about the culture – or anything at all? Look up our own English word ‘pregnant’. It derives (probably), says the Oxford English Dictionary, from two Latin words: prae –meaning ‘before’ and the base of gnasci, or nasci –be born. Not much to talk about there… Time for a little background.

In the 1930ies, Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that language alters how its users view reality. If there exists no word in a society for numbers, then how could its members count? He discovered that in the Hopi language –a Native American people- there were no markers of time –no later, or earlier, for example. So maybe they considered past, present and future the same? No words for time, no sense of time… The hypothesis put the cart before the horse it would seem, but the idea caught on… For a while, anyway.

Tempting as it may be to read cultural and etymological significance into the words that have come to be used for pregnancy –are Spaniards really embarrassed about being pregnant, for example?- many linguists have suggested that there is little if any validity in so doing. Well perhaps they’re right –all I  know about language is what the experts tell me and this seems to change over time.

So maybe I can take my pick of the plethora of  linguistic opinions. I mean it all seems to hinge on which theory is ascendant, which linguist is the most convincing/charismatic, and which theory gets the most press –a rare thing at best in Language Theory. But sensitivities do change, and revisionism usually rears its head to correct insensitive contentions. Data appears to go in and out of fashion; each side argues about it and then poof, a paradigm shift, and they’re off again. It’s almost like watching a hockey game.

From a decidedly lay position, though -one firmly rooted in popular mythology- I’ve come to suspect that linguists are trying to take the soul out of language: the fun. So I’m throwing in my lot with the opposition. Languages are alive; they simmer and bubble neologistically; they evolve according to need. They incorporate metaphor…They are metaphor until a suitable word is created to fill a niche.

The richness of a language resides both in the changes it undergoes and what it does with the remnants. With Semantic Drift, nothing is wasted; old ideas -old words- hide just beneath the surface, noticed only when pointed out. Borrowed words from other languages and other times play with meanings like colours play with fashion. It’s likely the same in all languages, all cultures, but I’d be stretching the obvious if I pretended to comment intelligently about anything other than English.

So does that make me a culturalist –or whatever the term would be for someone who loves to think each culture adds its own unique iridescence to the mix? And am I really harming anyone -or any society- if I smile at how some languages have managed to add a whiff of descriptive ingenuity to a word as important as ‘pregnancy’? Isn’t it wonderful to think that a language could transmute one or two words, conceal them in plain sight (or hearing?) -but unobtrusively so they don’t stand out like hitchhikers- and have them function as ambassadors for something totally new? And yet, like ‘Where’s Waldo’ they are there all the while, chuckling in the background at their clever disguises.

Personally, I think the world is more of a family if we can search inside each culture’s heritage for these shared gems without the fear of opening a racial Pandora’s box.  To unveil them should not court accusations of malevolent intent, or naïve generalizations. Just because, for example, one of the terms to describe being pregnant in Russian (Beremenaya in transliteration) translates, roughly, as ‘load’, ‘burden’, or even ‘punishment’, it says little more about the culture’s attitude to pregnancy than that it has a sense of perspective –and humour. Should we seriously speculate that because of their word for it, Malawians (in the Chichewa language) really, deep down, consider pregnancy an illness?

I think everybody should just lighten up and enjoy the archeologized meanings for what they are: a demonstration of the incredible ability of humans to bend their words and meld them into new and intricate designs. I don’t know, sort of like Isaiah’s idea of beating swords into ploughshares… Or would that be denigrated as a neo-neo-Whorfianism?