Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Word Power III: Die, Word, Die!

Words are powerful, and because of this sometimes they die iniquitous deaths. Verbicide, the twisting of an ancient, honest word to a new, nebulous purpose, is an ugly crime. C. S. Lewis catalogued [1] the types of verbicide: inflationary, of verbiage, politicizing, and approbatory. Inflation occurs when a word takes on many other meanings, verbiage when you set up an idea but never complete it, politicizing when you use just part of a word or redefine a word, and approbative verbicide occurs when you use a word only for the purpose of praising something, disregarding the word's descriptive power. Today I would like to take a look at some words that died on the political battlefield.

The first is that infamous word itself, politics. The Greek πολιτεία carries the senses of citizenship, a body of citizens (a polity), and a constitution. Helpfully, πολιτεία, along with πολιτεύω, the word for being a citizen, and citizen, πολιτηΐη, are similar, forming a happy little family of ideas which describe man's fate as a political animal. So what on earth do we mean when we say that someone is playing politics? Chiefly, we seem to mean that he's getting what he wants and we're not, and that his intentions are somehow nefarious. The business of living together and administering government is messy because men have conflicting interests and power seems to degenerate the character of men, but that's no reason to debase the very idea of living together in society and administering services. Too, we need not restrict political to describing activity centered around the state. Instead we ought with politics to reflect the free living and associations of free people.

Speaking of the state, our usage of the word borders on the ridiculous. From the Latin sisto it can mean appointed, fixed, or regular, and from sto it can mean positioned, arranged, or ranked. In both cases, one's status, i.e. situation, is relative to something. That something may very well be the government, but to use the word state to refer to the government is unbecoming because the government is not the nexus of being around which all life turns.

In fact, government isn't such a fine word either. The Latin verb guberno, even when used to mean govern a polity, retains its sense of to steer, as the gubernator steers the ship. Today's connotation of government, regardless of whether you want it big or small, is that of a large, monolithic or at best tripartite, entity. That doesn't seem to be the best fit for the metaphor, steering the ship of state. Ship implies swift, light, and maneuverable–if you want a big government, I humbly suggest a related name: leviathan.

The last word I'd like to reconsider is right. As an adjective it's just fine, meaning just, correct, or fair, or more literally, straight or set straight. The modern sense of right meaning a guarantee of something, stems from English legal notion of having a just claim or title. These words succeed, though, where rights fails because they are specific. Claim retains its root of clamare, Latin for to shout, and the notion that you are yourself claiming something for yourself. Likewise title, or entitled, retains the idea of a written document, a title, declaring your ownership of real property. Both claim and title are preferable to the nebulous definition of rights as "something I get because it's right," a notion at best a misdirection of natural law.

In conclusion, our goal should be to protect all ideas, not just the ones we like, so that they remain distinct and comprehensible. One step toward such a goal is to express them with as much clarity and precision as possible, and that requires from us both study and honesty.

[1] Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press. 1960.

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