Essay: Communications:


Words, Politics and a Danger

From Dictionaries

by Dr Bernard Lamb

President of the Queenfs English Society

(writing in a private capacity)

London, England


Link for Citation Purposes:



The meanings of words are critically important in everyday use as well as in legal documents and international treaties. The wrong association of meanings with particular expressions can have major political repercussions, influencing electorates. A blurring of distinctions between words or a confusing change in the meaning diminishes the accuracy and precision of written and spoken English, and modern dictionaries are part of the problem.


In politics, there is much confusion between eleftf and erightf, to the benefit of the left. eRight-wingf is now a pejorative term. Many journalists use the terms neo-Nazi, Fascist and far-Right almost interchangeably, but none of those groups are or were right-wing. The Nazis were the National Socialist German Workersf Party. The Fascists believed in authoritarian totalitarianism, a one-party state and an economy dominated by protectionist interventionist policies. On the left, one has authoritarianism and state control of production and consumption, and on the right, democracy and individual choice through market mechanisms. Communists, Fascists and Socialists belong on the left and Conservatives on the right, promoting individual freedom of choice. Calling non-Communist extremists efar-Rightf is totally wrong, as is calling hard-line Islamists in Iran 'conservatives'. Racist thugs whom the media label efar-rightf are not calling for free markets and less state intervention. The present Conservative government actually follows a lot of left-wing policies, such as high government spending and taxation.


Dictionaries such as the Oxford and Collins series base their word meanings on huge corpora (data bases) of billions of pieces of collected writing and speech, with no distinction between good and bad usage, or between contributions of educated and barely educated users of English. The Oxford English Corpus consists of about 2.1 billion words from the UK, USA, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean, India, Canada and Singapore, from journals, websites, newspapers, novels, blogs, emails, social media and speech. The Collins COBUILD corpus has about 4.5 billion words, from similar sources including broadcasts and conversations. It harms our language when dictionary makers worship the great god of usage, and usually decline to label misuses as such, fearing to seem didactic. Dictionaries are looked up to as authorities, yet their makers disclaim responsibility. They frequently publish lists of novel words, phrases or usages being incorporated, including ones which they hope will be controversial and generate publicity. They are in business and want people to feel that they need to buy new dictionaries to stay up to date, but the huge majority of words in dictionaries stay the same for centuries, with few changes in meaning. Of 10,000 words in manuscripts from Middle English (1066 to 1475), about 70% are still in use.


Let us look at three case histories. First, suppose there is a word with a widely accepted single meaning. Then suppose that ten people or groups start using it with a different meaning, differing between the groups in the new meaning adopted. Then other people who wish to appear trendy and rebellious join those groups, some of them perhaps giving more changes in meaning. We would end up with an abundance of different, conflicting meanings, and linguistic chaos. New uses can spread extremely quickly when taken up by journalists who want to seem ewith itf, fresh and new. The word ewokef was used as the past tense of the verb eto wakef, but is now overwhelmingly used as an adjective roughly meaning epolitically correctf. Confusion can easily arise if one dares to use egayf to mean joyful.


Second, take the case of einferf, for a brain to make a deduction, and eimplyf, to suggest, two quite different meanings. Evidence can suggest but cannot make inferences. Some people have confused the two terms, with the result that dictionaries now list einferf as a meaning of eimplyf, and vice versa, with a loss of a useful distinction.


Third, take the case of eformerlyf, meaning previously, and eformallyf, meaning officially, properly, strictly, correctly. The words sound alike but have quite different meanings. The Daily Telegraph (19/8/2019) had a medical article stating that: eOnce an individual has been formerly diagnosed, a range of treatmentscf Clearly, eformallyf should have been used. If enough people make this obvious error, it will get into corpora and then into dictionaries.


For efficient communication, we need fixed agreements on word meanings, or we could have lethal misunderstandings, e.g., between surgeons and nurses, or pilots and air-traffic controllers. In the Guardian (15/8/2019), David Shariatmadari wrote that he did not worry about the loss of distinction between edisinterestedf and euninterestedf, but it matters very much whether an umpire is disinterested (unbiased) or uninterested (not interested). He argues that because edisinterestedf was sometimes used in the 1600s in the sense of enot interestedf, we should accept that today. The fact that Shakespeare or a writer in the 16th or 17th century used a word or phrase in a way now disapproved of does not justify using it that way today because essential standardisation of meanings and grammar has occurred. Languages change with time but there are useful changes and harmful ones. Any change which loses clarity or causes confusion is bad. If a boy today writes that his stepmother is wicked, one does not know whether to be alarmed or happy. Dictionaries now allow the word eliterallyf to have non-literal meanings, as in ehe literally explodedf.


In George Orwellfs book Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Party employed the Thought Police to persecute people for individuality and independent thinking. The Partyfs minimalist language, Newspeak, with limited grammar and vocabulary, was enforced to limit freedom of thought. We must do our best to see that our language is not impoverished by word confusions and slanted meanings.




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