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Ethan Hein/flickr
Ethan Hein/flickr

The purpose of language is to exchange ideas, linguistic trickery turns words into disinformation.

I’ve been wanting to write about linguistic trickery for a long time, and mentioning it in my article on the Liverpool Pro Life Society convinced me to stop putting it off. What is linguistic trickery? It is the practice of radically changing the definition of a word, not so as to clarify, to be creative or add meaning, but so as to borrow from the prior meaning of the word and apply that linguistic charge to something only tangentially related, thereby attempting to convince the reader of a given point without actually arguing anything.

The article I mentioned above described how the petitioner spoke of the plan to set up a Pro Life society thus: ‘These are not religious ideas, they are misogynistic and hateful.’ The petitioner never actually explained what the Pro Life position or the society had to do with hating women, they merely took what they didn’t like, called it by a bad word and walked away. I want to explore this practice – which I regard as a rouse – and prove why it stands in opposition to the chief role of language: to facilitate the exchange of meaning.

The Growth of Concepts and the Diversification of Words

Language does and will change and adapt with time and fancy; what I’m against is the use of certain words in a way that is (deliberately or otherwise) deceptive.

To cover the diversification of words and how this helps us exchange information, I’ll borrow from  Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. The thesis of the book is that concepts (and words) are built on analogy, and that the process of learning and of naming new concepts is an intuitive one, based on perceived analogies between things. To use two of their examples: the orbits of planets are used to teach children about the orbits of elections, while desktop describes its electronic analogue on your computer.

To borrow a third example: hub. According to the Online Etymology Dictionarythe earliest usage of this word describes the solid centre of a wheel – so what does it mean to call a particular type of large airport, a hub? Hofstadter and Sander explain how the centre of a wheel, being the point that supports the spokes while transferring force between the outside and inside of the wheel, is analogous to an airline hub through which flights are routed.

Obviously, the airline hub has nothing to do with wheels, but this usage, which must once have sounded metaphorical, is useful in that it conveys a complex concept by using one that most people already understand. And, of course, it doesn’t stop with airports, there are wifi hubs, hubs of discussion, etcetera.

This is to say that the meaning of words changes, often radically, and that this facilitates an almost seamless exchange of information.

So What’s My Problem?

Take the example of misogyny, as used above. So far as I can tell, the petitioner was claiming that to be misogynistic is, among other things, to oppose or challenge abortion. Let’s look at the definition of misogyny, from Oxford:

A person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against women

This is a bad word. A misogynist is something not to be. Here’s the trick – you extend the definition of this word to encompass not just people who hate women, but people who hold (or don’t hold) particular viewpoints (at your discretion). In the case of the petition submitted to the Guild, these viewpoints related to abortion, but it can be almost anything. In another example, Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian  to call people who are sceptical of Hilary Clinton’s achievements misogynists.

This works as an arguing technique because a word like misogyny has strength, associations – it conjures concepts like violence, hatred and jealousy. Because of this, applying the word to someone, whether they actually fit the definition, has some of these concepts rub off on them. Re-defining the word thus also does an injustice to the word because of the inbuilt flexibility of language. ‘Misogynist’ isn’t an entity independent of reality, it’s just a label and will describe whatever we put in the jar.

So, calling people one doesn’t like misogynist worked for a while, because it still had the associations of its prior definition. Now, it’s so over-used that it barely means anything and, by definitions implied within its new usage, I and almost all of the women close to me are misogynists.

Hopefully it’s clear how this definitional change is different from the one undertaken by ‘hub’, as described above. I.e. hub means more than what it did in the 17th century, but nobody actually confuses an airport with the middle of a wheel. However, the change undertaken by misogynist isn’t creative, explanative or metaphorical – there wasn’t actually anything new to describe, nor any new information put across.

Rather than using an existing word to help people to understand a new concept, misogyny is watered-down to include related but not relevant concepts to the original idea. Thus, the explicative power of English is smaller after this transformation. I can’t stop language changing – and wouldn’t want to. Linguistic trickery is depressing, however, because it is hindering the exchange of information.

Linguistic Trickery for Right-Wingers

Maybe it seems like I’ve been picking on the Left, so let’s put the Right under consideration. If you’ve ever hung out with me, you’ll probably have heard me use ‘communist’ as a slur – it’s a handy insult for people/things that are overly restrictive, appropriative or just not red-blooded enough. But in using the word in this way I’m guilty of just the thing I’ve been complaining about – in what sense is the computer program or checkout assistant about which I’m complaining actually a communist ? There is no sense in which this makes sense, other than a definition that would be meaningless.

However, I would never use communist like this other than as a joke, never formally and rarely if at all in writing. However, there are people who actually think like this and use the word in this way. I remember seeing a Christopher Hitchens documentary in which a Texas border vigilante complained of the ‘communists in Washington’ – OK. taxes are too high, but are those people really communists? Both parties in Washington have been influenced by Marx, but  there’s no point in calling them communists.

Why? Communists are people who want to achieve the collective ownership of the means of production, and there are plenty of great words to describe the adherents of related but distinct ideologies: Social Democrat, Marxist, Anarcho-Syndicalist, Centre Leftist, Liberal and so on.

Could we, however, re-define the word communist so that it could apply to more people? To my ear, many people use communist to refer to pretty much anyone who believes that the free market should be curtailed in some way – this has a grain of sense, inasmuch as Communism relates to the ownership of the mean of production, but such a definition is useless.

If we use this definition, Trump is a communist, George W. Bush is a communist, Ronald Regan, Rand and Ron Paul are all communists, Pope John Paul II and Tony Blair are communists – everyone apart from a few Libertarians and Anarcho-Capitalists are communists.

Hopefully this elucidates my point – people who use talk and write like this are using language thus: people who don’t think like me = bad word. Thus, the radical feminist calling you a misogynist and the Texas vigilante have more in common than you realize, they both use powerful words according to absurd definitions so as to out-group hoards who don’t follow their own (fairly narrow) ideology.

There is no right way to use words. However, one can use words deceptively and in a way that blunts the descriptive ability of a language. Linguistic trickery is one such way.

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