Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous

Lexical Multi-valence

Communication is effectively a mode of expression (a way of conveying thoughts, sentiments, impressions) and/or a way of exchanging raw data (articulating concepts, descriptions, insights, or any kind of useful information about the world).  With language, one can convey emotions or one can convey ideas.  For this to work, though, one must be able to convey meaning in a way that that mimics a mental state between everyone involved.  This requires a shared lexicon.  And for a lexicon to be viable, there must be a mutually agreed-upon definition for each term.

Being scrupulous with our terminology ensures that language works well.  That way, we can avoid nonsensical pseudo-concepts like “fetal personhood” or “unborn child”: the Orwellian vernacular often employed by so-called “pro-life” ideologues.  Such linguistic prestidigitation is no blunder; it is by design; which is simply to say that it is INTENDED to be misleading.  The same people who ramble on about the well-being of embryos reject universal public healthcare; and refuse to support public policy that might give a leg up to those who are destitute.  In sum: Those who fashion themselves “pro-life” are—in effect—pro-zygote, anti-human.  (Part of the trick is to conflate two distinct—though generally correlated—concepts: humans and homo sapiens.)

This daffy Newspeak is enough to make even the impresarios of INGSOC blush.  Alas, right-wing lingo is notorious for semantic antics.  Legalized graft is rationalized by equating “money” with “speech”; then according legal constructs (corporations) legal personhood.  That way, the protection of corporate interests can be passed off as the protection of human interests.  As a result, even the most flagrant corporatism is rationalized simply by equating unfettered financial power with the promotion of civil rights.

Meanwhile, a plutocrat who bribes a politician is merely him exercising his right to “free expression”.  Legislation being bought and sold to the highest bidder can thereby be characterized as the 1st Amendment in action.  Here, “money” is “speech”.  Such rhetorical feints are a reminder that, when using buzz-terms, we need to be wary of the more insidious instances of semantic antics.

Conflation is not the only problem.  Consider the faux dichotomy of “cult” and “religion” (alt. “cultic” vs. “religious” activity / thinking).  The former is dubbed the latter when it is seen as esoteric; or is otherwise not accepted within mainstream culture.  The latter is what we end up dubbing the former when it has come to enjoy widespread acceptance in society-at-large.  At the end of the day, these two terms describe a singular underlying phenomenon—as with, say, “leopards”, “pumas”, “jaguars”, “cougars”, “catamounts”, and “mountain lions”.  Each of these large felines has a different stigma, depending on the culture; but they are all essentially variations of the same thing: panthers (not to be confused with the genus, “panthera”, which includes NON-panthers—like lions, tigers, and snow leopards).

Consider the daffy ways in which right-wing ideologues use the term “socialism”.  They inveigh against things like public funding for vital social services (e.g. education and healthcare), investment in basic public infrastructure (e.g. mass transit and the power grid), or oversight of corporate activity (to curtail negative externalities; and to prevent the more powerful from exploiting the less powerful) even as they vociferously support CORPORATE socialism.  In other words, they are against socialism for the masses (be it libraries, post offices, or fire departments), yet are earnestly for socialism for the wealthy.  The trick is to call the former (that which facilitates the commonweal) “socialism”…while assigning a noble-sounding label to unbridled corporate power.

Such Neoliberal Newspeak includes other misleading catch-phrases with which our public discourse has become festooned.  Note, for example, the use of the buzz-term, “tax cuts” so often used in right-wing rhetoric.  This simply means tax cuts for the ultra-rich (and massive tax breaks for large corporations); all the while maintaining onerous taxes on the working class.

Another indication of the deterioration of language is the commonplace usage of “literally” for emphasis (as opposed to its actual meaning, which specifies that a statement isn’t meant to be taken METAPHORICALLY).  Never mind other vernacular twists like “ask” as a noun (for request) or “woke” as an adjective (for enlightened); the mis-use of “literally” stems from not even understanding what a basic word MEANS.  Yet new lingo emerges; as human all have a predilection for slang: receipts (for evidence) and absolutely (for certainly / indubitably).

We can better diagnose societal dysfunction when we meticulously define each term we employ to articulate our ideas—taking great care to do so with perspicacity and precision.  Take, for instance, two phenomena that are often not associated with each other in the public discourse: religion and political correctness.  The former is institutionalized dogmatism; the latter is weaponized etiquette.  While they are two different phenomena, they have salient parallels: Both are tribalistic, puritanical, and authoritarian—and thus: right-wing phenomena.  Both involve groupthink.  Both offer an ersatz morality—whereby proponents pass propriety off as probity; thereby honoring a strict regime of piety (as morality) vs. heresy (as immorality).  And both encourage draconian blasphemy laws—policing expression and conduct.  Recognizing the underlying commonalities enables us to better understand both phenomena; yet our language games often get in the way.  We confuse our own colloquialisms for a kind of formal taxonomy; so end up missing salient points.

In such an environment, propaganda enjoys unfettered sway—enabling demagogues and charlatans to thrive.

And so it goes: Sloppy onomastics leads to un-necessary confusion.  There is no better example of this than the loaded term, “Marxism”.  What is often characterized as “Marx-ist” is, in reality, anti-Marxian.  Karl Marx would certainly not HIMSELF have been what came to be called “Marxist”.  Political “Marxism” generally ended up being anti-Marxian in virtually every way—favoring, as they did, highly-concentrated power and top-down control (while routinely committing crimes against humanity).  Instead of everyone having sovereignty over their own lives (complete emancipation), everyone was strictly controlled by an authoritarian tyranny (complete subjugation).  Marx called for empowering workers to dictate the terms of their employment; Soviet-style “Marxism”—from Stalin to Mao—did the exact opposite.

Alas, when we are unscrupulous with our wording, legerdemain runs amok; and sophistry reigns supreme.  Now it is tempting—for those who don’t know any better—to blithely dismiss Marx’s message because despots like Stalin and Mao branded their fascistic regimes “Marxist”.  (The same went for Kim Il Sung’s “Juche”, which was awkwardly branded as “Marxist-Leninist” in a gambit to ingratiate the regime with Moscow.)  The buzz-term, “communism” ended up becoming a duplicitous branding strategy.  One the one hand, it was used by fascistic regimes to operate under the pretext of populist ideals—thereby appealing to the rank and file under false pretenses.  On the other hand, it was used by capitalist societies as a way to scare people away from ACTUAL socialism (“You want to heed Marx?  Well, then look what happens!”)  In the end, sloppy language sabotages our public discourse.

A final example of how an unscrupulously instantiated semantic convention can be tremendously misleading is the conflation of the terms, “globalist” (pro-corporate) and “internationalist” (pro-human).  The former is a matter of supporting the interests of trans-national corporations; the latter is a matter of fostering global human solidarity—specifically: trans-national solidarity amongst the working class.  The trick is to exploit a commonality: Corporate power transcends national boarders; but so does human solidarity.  The “catch”, though, is that these two things involve diametrically-opposed ideals.  “Globalism” is effectively economic imperialism (anti-Marxian); while “internationalism” is effectively cosmopolitanism (Marxian).  The distinction, then, is between “Corporations of the world, consolidate!” (for the socio-economic elite) and “Workers of the world, unite!” (for the rank and file).

Passing internationalism off as globalism entails supporting plutocrats on the one hand, and the working class on the other.  This amounts to the difference between corporatism and humanism—two things that could not possibly be more different.  (Think of the difference between the World Economic Forum and Amnesty International.)  Unfortunately, Neoliberal Newspeak conflates these two things…even as they are antithetical to one another.  Consequently, “globalism” and “internationalism” are sometimes used interchangeably in public discourse; and RIGHT-WING “populism” (that is: faux populism; i.e. fascism; which serves the interests of the well-positioned few) is confused for genuine populism (sincerely concerned with empowering the rank and file).

All this linguistic prestidigitation is a stark reminder that, if we really want to understand our world, we need to be meticulous with our terminology.  When we are insufficiently fastidious with how we used language, semiotics can be easily hijacked; and people’s understanding of how the world works is promptly defenestrated.

Taking language seriously prevents perfidious actors from engaging in semantic antics. This means being precise–nay, perspicacious–with what any given lexeme MEANS; and ensuring everyone is–as it were–on the EXACT same page when it comes to (formal) definitions.

To “essentialize” (that is: to articulate the essence of something) is an integral part of any worthwhile conversation—be it formal scientific inquiry or a simple act of clarification regarding quotidian matters.  The point of having definitions, after all, is to distill something to its essence—thereby answering the question: When we are OSTENSIBLY talking about X, what are we REALLY talking about?  “Essentializing” is done in order to ensure that, when engaged in a conversation about X, everyone is concerned with the same kind of thing.  A perspicacious approach to dialogue precludes scenarios in which interlocutors find themselves just talking past one another—an exigency that renders any discussion pointless.

Such a crucial didactic measure used to be considered a good thing.  For that is how we are able to talk about concrete things (classes) like dogs and tables and genomes; and also talk about abstractions like “leadership” and “happiness” and “success”.  Want to talk about “god”?  Great.  First, we must define what we mean by the term…just as we would if we were to talk about cats or chairs or DNA.

Alas.  In some academic circles, “essentializing” is now considered a bad thing.  Why?  It is associated with stereotyping / stigmatizing; or it is seen as over-simplifying a complex matter; or, worse, it is equated with making gross generalizations.  But definitions are neither stereotypes nor stigmas; nor are they over-simplifications or gross generalizations.  They are the means by which we can ensure that everyone is on the same page—specifically: when it comes to MEANING.  Getting to the bottom of things (a.k.a. figuring things out) entails getting to the essence of things.  And it is a fool’s errand for us to (even attempt to) talk about X if we do not all mean the same thing when we refer to X.

Definitions must be established for communication—and any investigation—to be effective.  Otherwise, we’re just quibbling over definitions—that is: over what this or that term SHOULD mean; or means to ME, even if it might mean something else to you.

This matter is made a bit more complicated by terms that can have multiple definitions.  Such multi-valence isn’t necessarily a problem.  For—typically—in any given instance, the meaning of such a term can be surmised from the context in which it is used.  If I drive you to the store, it’s different from driving you crazy.  One involves physically conveying someone to a certain geographical location; the other involves causing someone to experience a certain psychical state.  This distinction is clear to anyone who understand how the term operates in different ways.

At the time of this writing, the Oxford English Dictionary offers these tabulations regarding the number of (possible) definitions for the following words:

  • “set” has 464 (at last count)
  • “run” has 396 (though Simon Winchester has recently counted up to 645 distinct meanings)
  • “go” has 368
  • “take” has 343
  • “stand” has 334
  • “get” has 289
  • “turn” has 288
  • “put” has 268
  • “fall” has 264
  • “strike” has 250…and counting.

How is it that we do not have an aneurism each time we read a text that uses any of the above words?  Most English-speaking children have mastered virtually all of the above words by the time they have reached adolescence (though not necessarily every definition).  There has never been a dilemma translating any of these words into alternate languages—REGARDLESS of how they are used.

What does such lexical multi-valence mean for translation?  Imagine a translator encountering the sentence: 

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

The statement means: X that are bullied by other X, in turn bully X that are bullied by other X (where X is bison from up-state New York). {1}  Imagine someone who was not well-versed in English tasked with interpreting this sequence (i.e. the same lexeme repeated eleven times).

A variation on this involves canines addled by other canines further addling each other: “Dogs dogs dog dog dogs dogs dog.”  Make it about dauntless canines in the past tense, and one can refer to when dogged dogs dogged dogged dogs.

How about when a badger badgers badgers while a horse horse horses around? {2}    For the same word being used several times in a row, there are myriad examples.  Lexical ambiguity is compounded when one uses neither punctuation nor emphasis, inflection, and pauses where it is crucial to conveying meaning–as with: “Bob, while John who had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had a better effect.”  (Here also, the same phoneme occurs eleven times consecutively.)

Language does funny things, but any competent translator can surmise what the author was most likely “getting at” (and just as helpful: where he was “coming from”).  This task can be accomplished in the same manner he might figure ANYTHING out: by employing deductive reasoning.  With interpretation, this is usually done by considering what was said in the rest of the exposition (a.k.a. “intertextuality”).

As Shakespeare demonstrated, no language is more idiomatically versatile than English.  The good news is that a competently-procured annotation is capable of explicating what something means.

A master of exploiting the idiosyncrasies of the English language was the stand-up comedian, Steven Wright.  (Such idiosyncrasies were exploited for years of hilarious material.) Let’s look at some of the more fascinating semantic quirks.

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