Cooking the Cultural Books in Wonderland

“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.


  1. I commented recently on line somewhere that it is a matter of genetics and that a man ,for instance, who wants to wear a dress and behave like a woman is still genetically a man. An examination of his genes in cells in a murder investigation would tell the scientists he is male, surely? There does not seem to be a transgender genetic code . However I may be old fashioned and Biology has moved on since I was at school

    1. Actually, genes (which were discovered only a few generations ago) don’t always match anatomy.

      Some women have Y chromosomes, for example. As I understand it, human embryos are female by default unless they are affected by androgens, a hormone that is stimulated by the Y chromsome — but sometimes embryos have faulty androgen receptors and so they turn into females anyway, at least outwardly. (In some cases their inner reproductive organs remain incomplete.) So when these embryos are born as infants, they are considered girls, and then they grow up to become women, and it is often only when they get DNA tests that they discover they have Y chromsomes. I am aware of at least one athlete who was disqualified for competing in the Olympics because she had a Y chromsome; until then, she had always assumed that the reason she never menstruated was because she did so much exercising as part of her training.

      And then there are so-called “chimeras” who have two sets of DNA in their bodies, because they are the product of two separate embryos — fraternal twins — that merged in the womb into a single embryo. I do not know if there are known cases of “chimeras” that combined a male embryo and a female embryo, but I wouldn’t rule it out. (Again, “chimeras” have no idea that that’s what they are until someone performs a DNA test on them, and no one knew DNA even existed until a few generations ago. I have heard about one case where a woman sued her ex-husband or ex-boyfriend for child support, and when the obligatory DNA test was performed on her and her ex — to confirm who the children’s parents were — she was told, “The good news is, the kids are his; the bad news is, the kids aren’t yours,” and she was charged with fraud or something like that until she had another test done, taking DNA from a different part of her body, which did match her kids.

      I had an interesting debate with a Catholic friend of mine about cases like these, because Catholic canon law has very strict preconditions for recognizing a “valid” marriage. One of these conditions is that the two partners be a man and a woman. I asked my Catholic friend is a marriage could be considered “invalid” if a woman discovered that she had male DNA — I asked if this would open up a loophole that would allow her husband to get an annulment and find another wife with the church’s blessing — and my friend did not rule that out. (He said the wife in that case would not be a woman but a “botched man”.) I replied that this didn’t seem like a very humane response to me, and, more importantly, it seemed absurd to invalidate a marriage based on a scientific definition of gender that didn’t even exist a century ago (before the discovery of chromosomes a few generations ago).

      All to say, it’s not as simple as saying “it’s a matter of genetics”. (As for whether biology has moved on since you were at school, I first learned about intersexuality about 30 years ago, and about “chimeras” about 20 years ago, so these concepts are not *that* new.)

  2. I think this became clear to me years ago when I read Christianity and Liberalism by Machen. In many ways, the expansion of definitions, or out and out total redefinition – is really a demonic theological move/manipulation. If you’ve never read Machen’s book, it’s good – especially for understanding the Fundamentalist controversy in America.

  3. .. and yet Father your own use of the word “gender” is not a healthy use, IMO. Gender has an interesting history according to the
    Online Etymological Dictionary.
    To me the okd fashion word sex is fine. As in “What is your sex.?” Although that tends to be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.

    My mother of blessed memory used to call homosexuals “the confused gender” and she danced in Martha Graham’s company and taught dance all her adult life.

    Our foe, the evil one, knows how important the meaning of words is–after all our Savior is The Word, the Truth and the Life. Matthew 4:4 reminds us as well.

    Maintaining true meanings of words is not simply a pedantic exercise as some would have us believe. Twist the language and belief and practice follow.
    “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

  4. I seem to remember that, in language, gender basically referred to feminine and masculine whereas sex referred to male and female. A slight but significant nuance. I could be wrong (I often am). In any event, wonderful piece! Thank you.

    1. Father Deacon, you are generally correct but even that usage is fairly modern (20th century) before that it was just a word the denoted a classification. To reclaim the usage, we will have to be very specific and consistent.

  5. Sex and gender mean different things but are routinely conflated to mean the same thing. Sex simply means a sexed body male or female, while gender (masculine and feminine) refers to those roles and expectations, often cultural, that are linked to being either male or female. Transgenderism connects more with gender identity and some sense of innate masculine/feminine gender essence.
    There has been a strong push back to some transgender claims by gender critical (GC)feminists in the UK who are sceptical of a gender essence and certainly of one that makes a male sexed body into a female one. Moreover, they point out that gender identity in the transgender community is often framed in highly stereotypical ways such as I must be a woman because I like wearing floral dresses.
    Something going around the Twitter sphere right now sums it up
    Sexism, patriarchy, tradition would argue that a female human as part of her gender role (can replace gender role with God given or traditional role) should be the one who cleans the toilet
    2nd wave feminism/ GC feminism argues that both sexes should clean the toilet
    Trans ideology implies that the woman is whoever is cleaning the toilet.
    A bit simplistic but it gives an idea. Assenting to the term cis may mean you are potentially linking regressive gender notions with natal sex. I’m not particularly interested in floral dresses but I’m still female and will remain so even if I were never to wear dresses, put on makeup or have long hair.
    Like GC feminists I don’t believe in some amorphous gender essence located who knows where that overrides my sex – unlike C.S. Lewis who along with modern transactivists believed that ‘…Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex.’ Lewis perfectly sums up modern trans ideology. Funny how conservative Christianity and some of the wilder shores of trans ideology are not so at odds with each other after all. C.S Lewis and some modern trans writers share so many similar thoughts.
    Controversially GC feminists argue that trans women are just doing what males have always done telling women who and what they are and overtalking their experience amounting to an effective erasure of women which again is old news. Relating this to Church, I disconnected when I heard terms like mankind, for us men, forefathers and brethren. Think it is what it is men writing text for themselves and about themselves. Some women can live with it, some can’t. If I was in a shop and they said all men to stand on the left, I wouldn’t think to join them, likewise when I heard ‘for us men’, I didn’t relate it to myself in a heartfelt way there was always a distance.

  6. I have long said that those who believe that the Orthodox Church oppresses and denigrates women has 1. Never been in an Orthodox Church and, 2 Never met an Orthodox woman.
    Sure such sin is in the Church, but it is not the Church or her teaching. That very language proclaims the Truth.
    Male and female, masculine and feminine express the binary reality. The word “gender” does not.
    BTW, one of the reasons I became Orthodox and love the Church is because of the strength and vitality of Orthodox women.

  7. Perhaps let us snatch the club from the unbelievers’ hands and beat them with it:

    Henceforth any and all attacks on, criticisms of, or even polite disagreements with the holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church shall be given the blanket label of “christophobic”.

    By so doing, the Church becomes victorious in all things simply on the basis of recognizing all that is contrary to her as instances of a pervasive and irrational christophobia.

    I like it. I’m going to try it.

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