The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

With my computer now dead, I am attempting to write this on my phone. I’ll try to get it drafted here and then edit it during my lunch break, but if I miss some autocorrect errors, please forgive me.

This afternoon (Sunday), after church, I found myself watching a documentary on the use of the swastika in Hinduism. In short, the programme looked at the symbols origins as a way to embody good fortune, and how that was then hijacked by the Nazis. The main focus was on the continued use of the symbol and how it is seen by modern Hindus and Jews.

It struck a chord with a thought I’ve had for some time, but which I don’t think I’ve explicitly blogged about before, though regular readers may recognise the thought in earlier allusions. Though the programme dealt with a symbol, my thought relates more to words. The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.

The question implicit in the programme was whether the Nazis so damaged the symbol that it has become indelibly linked with evil and should be scrapped, or whether Hindus should ‘reclaim’ it and educate people into thinking of it primarily as a Hindu emblem.

In my opinion, there are a great number of words which have been similarly tainted, though maybe not to such a violent extent. I then wonder whether we need to make an effort to wrestle them out of the modern vernacular usage and restore them to their original meaning or whether they should be allowed to change, leaving us searching for new words to enunciate old ideas.

Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.

Take, for example, the word ‘meek’. Today, it’s common usage is a synonym for ‘weak’. It is most often heard in the phrase “meek and mild” which seems to be used as a tautology, since they are meant to connote similar ideas. Yet in it’s original usage, it meant something more akin to “power under control”. In other words, it is a word denoting strength, the very opposite of how it is understood. So ought we to use the word as it was originally meant and risk being understood or do we abandon it and “go with the flow”?

Here, I must admit that in this respect, I am something of a contrarian. I do not think that every word that has had it’s meaning undergo a metamorphosis ought to be restored back to an antiquarian definition. Neither would I propose that we give up all hope. Instead, it’s a question of effort and how that compares to the value we put in words.

From a mathematical point of view, one word I am quite passionate about is ‘complex’. To me, this denotes a large set of numbers, made up of real and imaginary parts. Then again, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ mean very specific things to me that they probably don’t to most non-scientists. As a consequence of this, I am very careful to use the word ‘complicated’ to denote something that is tricky, intricate or entangled.

I would hope I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Maybe those words I am most passionate about are unique to me, but that’s ok.

  • Are there any words you think are regularly misused?
  • Have I used any words in a way you disapprove of?
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6 responses to “The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

  1. Language is my passion. Some of the questions you’ve raised are academic hot topics.

    Two points:

    “The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.”

    I, for one, don’t subscribe to the mindset that meanings and use are separate, as you imply here.

    “Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.”

    If you’re of Wittgensteinian thought, such as myself, it would be regarded as absurd. You mention ‘meek’ after this paragraph but it’s not a particularly good example in the English language. ‘Nice’ is far more etymologically interesting.

    Given your mathematical inclinations, I strongly recommend you read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It would help to remedy the mental discomforts you have on distorted meaning, certainly.

  2. I can’t say I have read any Wittgenstein. I just popped down to the bookshop but the only work of his they had on the shelf was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. From a quick look at that oh-so-reliable source of Wikipedia, it seems that Philosophical Investigations went someway to retracting or otherwise clarifying his earlier work.

    Is there a particular translation you would recommend? As an English monoglot, the German original would likely be less than helpful.

    Again, given the cursory reading I could do over my lunch break, it seems his (and your) idea of meaning being purely derived from usage would contradict the more Platonist view – one that roughly hold to, due largely to the influence of the works of Roger Penrose (see, for example, his introduction to The Road to Reality), as his twistor theory was the subject of my master’s thesis, under the tutelage of one Penrose’s former PhD students, now a Fellow of the Royal Society and at the time I was at uni, head of the maths department.

    At first sight, the query I would have with the view that meaning is only derived from usage is the question of how widespread that usage needs to be. That, I suppose, is the question implicit at the top of the post regarding the swastika.

    To take an absurd example, if I looked at animal of the species canis lupus and decided to call it a tractor, would that mean the definition of a tractor has changed, simply by dint of one person? I would posit that it hasn’t, but I’m not sure how you or Ludwig might respond. Is there some kind of linguistic democracy at play, requiring a majority usage?

    • Yes, he abandoned Tractatus line of thinking– only the line, mind you, not the conclusion.

      “his (and your) idea of meaning being purely derived from usage would contradict the more Platonist view”

      And indeed all the nineteenth century and early twentieth century philosophers who had developed this view; e.g. Frege, sense and reference, etc..

      For the translation: his student, Anscombe.

      In regard to the hypothetical and question posed in your last paragraph– do read PI. It examines exactly these ideas to a tremendous degree of subtlety.

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