The relationship between a word and what it signifies is not arbitrary. That misconception, the chief legacy of that poster boy of postmodernism, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, is largely to blame for the cultural maelstrom that has enveloped the West in recent years.
Saussure’s conviction that the connection between a word and what it signifies is entirely arbitrary, except in the special case of onomatopoeia, has taken on a life of its own in such a liberal free-wheeling manner that it has permeated every imaginable area of academic and public discourse, traveling from the academic world into art and literature and engulfing politics and even business. His narrow notion of arbitrariness mutated into something genuinely revolutionary; the idea that words are free spirits, just marks on a page like the strokes of an artist’s brush. That revolution has been so silently successful that there is no space in which adults communicate that is not currently being damaged by the Humpty Dumpty notion that if I decide to use a word to mean x then—like it or not—you have no choice but to accept it means x.
Words fascinate me because not only are they our only internal means of understanding anything—apart from touch and maybe music—they are our only external form of human currency. Whether we throw them away or save them up, appreciate their value or count their cost, everything we exchange with others—from our closest family members and our fiercest public opponents—is priced in words.
Today, we are seeing more and more people being blackmailed into paying exorbitant ransoms. Choose the wrong word as an academic and you may find yourself denied both your right to free speech and a speaking engagement. Tweet or post one wrong word on Instagram or Facebook, even if you’re a teenager just getting to grips with the world and with words, and you may find yourself being interviewed by the police and banned from a platform, accused, tried and found guilty in not much longer than it took to type the offending word. Never mind that you sincerely think you know what the word means, or that the employee of the social media business who has to make the decision to ban you may have the reading age of a twelve-year-old and be working from a checklist. Use a wrong word about your latest young adult novel and it will never see the light of day and fans will soon be demanding your humble apology.
There is no calm at the center of a Twitter storm: but there is laughter. I’ve had US librarians demanding I get the sack because I had the temerity to argue in one of my Times Educational Supplement columns that most young adult fiction was patronizing, proselytizing garbage. Librarians—people who generally, when really pushed, express their aggression by placing an index finger in front of their lips before uttering the vicious imperative, Shhh. One of them referred to me gloriously as a cockwomble. I can now claim, with a straight face, that I’ve been cockwombled by the bitterarty.
I’m not the first to reject Saussure’s formula. Professional linguists like Louis Hjelmslev have taken on that task, but they have not managed to release the steely grip this revolutionary postmodernist mantra still has on our culture. It’s been a slow and sly process. There was no linguistic equivalent of Bebelplatz, no showy bonfires built only of dictionaries in architecturally splendid squares. Instead, the beautifully simple idea that words, those curious visual patterns made of letters that you’re now looking at and miraculously turning into an exchange of thought between us, had absolutely no immutable connection with the ideas they conveyed, simply took up residence at the back of people’s minds.
Especially—and most significantly—in the minds of educated people, people who write things. That point is absolutely vital if you are one of the many millions of ordinary citizens who don’t write things, but who still have opinions—and a vote.
Once you believe Saussure, then it’s an entirely logical and easy step to infuse a word of your choice with new meaning. It’s just a matter of confident assertion to stifle any nuance or connotation from a word, nail it down and declare it closed for business. Forget what a lexicographer has to say. I say it means this. That’s what really lies at the heart of the cultural maelstrom. That’s why there is such a massive disjunct between what ordinary people think and what the media, political and business worlds think. Populism is just another weaponized word for this social collapse. A gulf has opened up between those who use words for a living and those who don’t.
Let’s consider some examples. The British public is currently being treated to an advertising campaign for a major British bank, built entirely around these five words in this particular order, “We are not an island.” Now it’s true I have managed to get to France without flying, sailing or swimming, but the existence of a tunnel under the English Channel does not seem to me a convincing argument against geographical reality. In a spectacularly uncompromising way, the creators of this campaign sought to redefine an entire nation’s history and culture.
A presumably small team of advertising copywriters had not the least hesitation in taking a word which is itself notably uncompromising—you’re either a land mass surrounded by water or you’re not—and denying it that one, ineluctable meaning. I’m not interested in why they did this. I’m interested in the fact that they knew they could.
Let’s return to the example of young adult fiction (YA). Imagine we walked into the local Waterstone’s together, browsed the YA section and between us picked a popular YA novel off the shelf, one praised in the press or on the book jacket for its sensitive treatment of a contemporary issue. Now imagine that—instead of attacking the author for proselytizing—like that copywriting team, I got all creative and chose the word grooming instead. Do you have a problem with that? Why? After all the word leapt overnight from describing the routine action of brushing an animal’s coat to something much less innocent not by the relatively slow, evolutionary process linguists are familiar with, but by the deliberate choice of people who realized they could weaponize it.
Britons are all too familiar at the moment with the word crash—not because there’s been a sudden upsurge in motor vehicle accidents, or financial meltdowns—but because someone, somewhere realized that combining it with out suited their political purposes beautifully when it came to Britain leaving the EU. Leaving is pleasantly neutral, don’t you think? But what if they had chosen to combine break with out? Calling it a break out might have been a far more accurate, honest way to honor the feelings of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave.
It wouldn’t be difficult to compile a list of words that have been weaponized in the same dramatically effective way as these. I suspect one of the first was racist—a word so effectively nailed down in the US that it has become an unanswerable charge, against which no defense is either offered, or possible any more. The word is closed for business and woe betide anyone, whatever color their skin or however mixed their genes, who dares question it. Politicians rushed to add hate to the list. By categorizing potential victims of hate, they have unwittingly started a ball rolling that will crush far more in its path than they ever envisaged. Trauma is another example. A word historically reserved for the most extreme forms of human suffering is now wielded effectively by anyone seeking sympathy, or that now perversely desirable prize, victim status. It’s Saussure we have to thank now that joining a barbaric cult defined by death, destruction and disturbing cruelty can be described as traumatic.
But Saussure was wrong. Words are not arbitrary things. They enter all our lives culturally preloaded. A child doesn’t assimilate some magically neutral, pristine vocabulary. The words she learns and repeats come preloaded with etymology, history and literature. They may have local as well as national potency, be weighed down with cultural redolence or be rank with overuse but they are never, ever pure. We have failed to teach that crucial truth in favor of something more solipsistically seductive. Why care about what our history tells us when we can create our own history? The teaching of history itself has been all but swept away by the same erroneous thinking that words are just toys to play with.
We have inadvertently created a terrifying binary weapon. The idea that you can do as you please with words, coupled with technology designed to generate and share them instantaneously, is the most culturally toxic combination imaginable. It has decimated the academic world, stupefied the media and made heroes of commercial villains.
Watch or listen to almost any live discussion or debate, on TV or radio, and you will quickly realize that we have lost the ability to debate and discuss at the level of language. No word is safe anymore—Saussure’s deceit has such a grip on our cultural throat that the evolution of language has been usurped. The various ways words naturally come into being have been bypassed by this practice of weaponization. Words don’t mutate and survive naturally because they fit better: they are deliberately experimented on and mutated by individuals and groups to fulfill their specific desires. Yet no one dares to argue with the weaponizers. Where we would expect academics, writers and journalists to challenge a radical new usage and disarm the aggressor, they are all too often either complicit, or guilty of exactly the same damaging behavior.
I for one, have had enough. I don’t want to sit quietly by watching this cultural chaos continue until it leads inevitably to physical violence, as it will when the gulf between the weaponizers and their targets gets so wide that the targets decide, enough really is enough.