“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.” This is from the famous dialogue found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Though Carroll’s book was written in 1865 its lessons are perhaps even more relevant today, since our culture is rapidly becoming as bewildering and strange as Wonderland. Culturally speaking, we have fallen down the rabbit hole.
In particular, it is clear that, at least for the liberal woke left, words mean just what they choose them to mean, neither more nor less. Specifically, words are now being re-defined so as to pre-determine the result of any debate before the debate is held. Such cooking of the verbal books is perhaps why there is so little real debate actually occurring in our culture, and why the descent down the rabbit hole is happening so quickly.
The practice of co-opting words in the service of a particular agenda and of changing and pre-determining their meaning (or, in plainer talk, of distorting the common meaning of a language) has a long history. A famous (and lurid) example is found in Germany in the 1930s, when a small segment of the German population co-opted the word “German” (or “Deutsch”) to make it mean “consistent with Nazi ideology”. Thus a “German greeting” no longer meant a greeting given in the German language but the so-called Nazi salute of saying “Heil Hitler”. When Goebbels boasted on air that the country now had a German press, a German film industry, etc. etc. etc., what he really meant by this was that they had excluded Jews from all those areas. The word “German” no longer meant, “a citizen of Germany or a person of German descent”. It now meant just what the Nazis wanted it to mean—neither more nor less. In these instances, to use Humpty Dumpty’s chilling phrase, they were the masters.
The distortion of language is never a good thing. It often occurs gradually and incrementally—so incrementally that it doesn’t cause much of an uproar, for the final ramifications of the change are not easily foreseen.
Take, for example, the change of “mankind” to “humankind”. The change was not made to clarify meaning, but to promote ideology. No one speaking English thought that “mankind” was confined to males; it referred to the whole human race. The word was inclusive and universal by definition; it included people of every gender, every colour, every religion, and every political stripe. When a man said, “This discovery will benefit all mankind”, he was understood to mean, “It will benefit absolutely everyone”. That was how English worked, how it was spoken, and how it was understood.
Thus when astronaut Neil Armstrong set first set foot on the moon and famously said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, everyone knew he was making a contrast between the specific footstep of a single individual and the collective accomplishment of all the human race. In the English he was speaking, mankind=the human race.
It was the same with the word “man” or “men”. When the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer included a prayer entitled, “A prayer for all conditions of men”, no one imagined the prayer was concerned with males only. Everyone speaking English knew that “men” in this context meant “people of both genders”—i.e. everyone.
It may or may not be true, as some feminists allege, that our culture systematically oppresses women through its use of language. That is a debate for another time. But the assertion that the word “mankind” or “men” in the English language refers to males only is simply untrue, and the change in language was not made in the service of linguistic clarity, but in the service of a political agenda. The refusal to acknowledge that the term “mankind” means everyone, and the demonization of those who continue to use the word with its original meaning is part of a larger political project. Using the words “humankind” and “humans” to replace the older words “mankind” and “men” indicates a level of assent to the new agenda and a cultural capitulation to the feminist changes. Words have thus become politicized—if not weaponized—and have been co-opted in service to a particular political agenda. The change of terms has a cultural significance, not simply a verbal one.
We see this today with the introduction of such neologisms as “homophobic”, “transphobic” and (my favourite) “cisgender”. (These latter two neologisms are sufficiently new that my spell-checker underlines them in red, telling me that I have misspelled something and that these are not actual words. That will, I’m sure, be dealt with and updated soon enough.)
The common use of these words in our language indicates the attempt of one party in a cultural dispute to determine the outcome of the debate in advance—to cook the cultural books so that only they can win. Now, using the new vocabulary (or “Newspeak”) any criticism of homosexuality or any assertion that homosexual practice is sinful is described as “homophobic”—that is, as motivated by an irrational, visceral, and oppressive hatred of homosexuals as individuals.
When this new vocabulary is allowed to go unchallenged, it is no use protesting that some people may object to homosexual practice on religious grounds, but still treat all homosexuals fairly, kindly, and without discrimination. The protest will not be allowed, and no evidence (such as one’s actual behaviour towards homosexuals or the fact that one has homosexual friends) will count for anything. There is no need for a trial; the outcome has already been pre-determined. If one objects to homosexual practice on principle, one is therefore homophobic by definition.
Therefore, because everyone knows that it is bad to harbor an irrational, visceral, and oppressive hatred of homosexuals as individuals (i.e. to be truly homophobic), no criticism of homosexuality is ever allowed. The homosexual agenda thus becomes victorious not because any superior arguments supporting it in fair debate, but solely on the basis on the new vocabulary.
It is the same with transgenderism: this agenda has become imbedded in our culture not on the basis of any scientific support for its claims or of any real argument at all, but entirely because any criticism of the agenda is now labeled “transphobic”. Because of this, although transgenderism has no real science behind it, scientists are often cowed into submission and silence because they would like to keep their jobs. In our society, being labeled “transphobic” is increasingly a quick way to the unemployment office.
One sees this too in the neologism “cisgender”, coined by German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch in his 1998 essay “The Neosexual Revolution”. The prefix “cis” comes from the Latin for “on this side of” (e.g. Roman “Cisalpine Gaul” meant “Gaul on this side of the Alps”). The term “cisgender” therefore denotes one whose gender matches the sex they had at birth, as opposed to “trans-gender”, denoting one whose gender is on the other side of the one they had at birth. Prior to the Newspeak Revolution, apart from a small percentage of biological abnormalities such as hermaphroditism and inter-sex conditions, “gender” equaled “sex”, and one’s gender was determined at birth on the basis of simple observation, as was colour of one’s eyes. Gender was no more “assigned” or “chosen” than was natural eye colour.
Acceptance and use of the term “cisgender” involves capitulation to the entire transgender agenda and vision of sexuality. It is the modern pinch of incense burnt on the altar of the new ideology, and using the term involves accepting the assertions of the ideology before any debate about its merits is even held. Those promoting transgenderism do not now need to win any arguments for their case; they simply need to insist on the use of their own terminology. That is certainly much easier than taking the trouble to win a fair debate.
Perhaps given our debt to George Orwell, the last word may go to him. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” he said, “When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship. But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”—or can predetermine cultural outcomes so that sustained thought becomes unnecessary.
Things are definitely getting strange down here in Wonderland. But Humpty Dumpty was right about one thing: in the matter of thought, debate, and the use of words, it all depends who is the master.