Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Save the Adjectives!

You know, I get really indignant when people try and mess with the meanings of words. It's hard enough for people to get a really good vocabulary without people making up their own definitions. It was pointed out by Bill Bryson in his book Mother Tongue that "gentleman" originally had a specific meaning, something along the lines of "minor nobleman." However, it was changed to mean something that we already had a word for, which was "men." Thus, a useful word was lost for the sake of gaining a synonym. What set me off on this was something I read recently where an someone said that he considered himself to be an atheist, but refused to accept the definition of the dictionary and went on to define it himself. It was a decent explanation, but the fact remains that what he described isn't what either the dictionary or common usage defines as an atheist.
I hold several similar views on homosexuality. I'm opposed to gay marriage on moral grounds, but I understand that the government has the right to recognize a union among gay people if it feels so inclined (and, theoretically, any incorporation of private citizens into a body for legal purposes), so long as it continues to do so in cases of marriages. What I will not support, ever, is calling homosexual unions "marriage." Marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. You cannot have a same-sex marriage any more than you can have an atheist Christian or an XX-chromosome male. If you'd like to make a phrase out of existing words ("civil union") or invent a word out of whole cloth (so long as it's not something like "maridge"), then feel free. However, stop messing with the language. While I don't think people should make fun of homosexuals (well, at least no more harshly than they would any other group), I do think that the backlash against using "gay" to mean "stupid or worthless" is hypocritical. "Gay" didn't originally have a meaning anywhere near "homosexual" until homosexuals annexed it. If another group wants to annex the word to mean something of their choice, whether it be "stupid" or "blue," then saying that they're stealing the word isn't the most convincing argument.
Now, this doesn't apply to science taking a normal word and giving it a nuanced meaning within a specific field. The word still means pretty much the same thing, though with a specific emphasis. What I'm opposed to is creating meanings out of whole cloth simply to take advantage of the esteem in which a word is currently held.

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