In a comment to a previous post Jared A suggested that I would benefit, especially in my posts on religion and atheism, from using words more precisely in order to make my points clearer. In particular, he said that the word ‘myths’ usually refer to sacred narratives, while ‘scriptures’ refer to sacred writings. The beliefs in the scriptures, if codified, are referred to as ‘doctrine’ and if such beliefs are required they are referred to as ‘dogma’. There is no requirement that any of the scriptures, myths, or doctrine be dogma.
This is good advice and I will try to follow it. But there was one other word in Jared’s list whose meaning took me by surprise. He said that the word ‘cult’ refers to ‘the set of external rituals and practices in totality’. He later clarified by saying that the word’s root is ‘culture’ and he quotes an article that says that the word ‘cult’ has come to ‘connote the total cultural aspects of religion’.
Clearly this is not the way that the word ‘cult’ is currently understood, Nowadays it is used pejoratively to describe a small group that is held together by strong devotion to beliefs that other people consider extreme or bizarre.
This illustrates the evolution of language. Words do not have fixed meanings. Dictionary meanings of words are not prescriptive, telling us how they should be used, but are merely descriptive, telling us how they are or have been used. As such, in any living language the meanings of words (and phrases) will change over time. This raises an awkward problem during the time of transition. Do we try to retain the meaning it has had in the past (which can make us come across as being hidebound) or do we go with the flow and accommodate the change, which can lead to charges that language is being debased. The struggle over language often has generational overtones since it is often young people who coin new words or new meanings to old words and us old-timers can easily slip into the cranky stereotype of opposing any and all changes. We risk becoming the language police, as in this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look.
What is clear is that there does seem to be a point of no return beyond which it becomes pointless to fight a change and one should simply accept the new usage. I find myself on both sides of this issue depending on the particular case. ‘Cult’ may be one such word whose current meaning of a small doctrinaire group has become so widespread that it trumps the old one and there is no point trying to fight it.
Other cases are not so straightforward. For example, take the phrase ‘I couldn’t care less’. The plain meaning of this is clear, that there is some lower limit or floor to caring and that one has reached that point. It represents the absolute lowest amount that it is possible to care. But nowadays one commonly encounters people saying ‘I could care less’ to imply the same thing. (In a comment to yesterday’s post on clichés, Phledge offered it up as one phrase that should be eliminated.)
The new usage is gaining ground but I don’t like it. It does not make sense since if you could care less, that means that you have not reached the floor of caring and thus still do care somewhat. However, Stephen Pinker in his book The Language Instinct (p. 390) defends the new usage as also correct, saying that people who use it are doing so in a sarcastic way, as an abbreviated version of “As if I could care less” and he says that the way the sentence is inflected shows this. I am not sure that I buy his argument. When I hear people say it, it does not sound to me as if they are using it in a sarcastic manner, and the written form does not allow for inflection clues anyway, unless one resorts to emoticons, which I personally avoid.
But as with many evolutions of words and phrases, they often end up with meanings that have lost the tether to their anchor and have become free-floating symbols with new meanings. For example, the phrase ‘tow the line’ is commonly used instead of the original ‘toe the line’ even though the imagery invoked is quite different and only the latter image is consistent with the intended meaning.
The same is true for the label ‘Uncle Tom’ which is now seen as a deeply insulting term applied to black people who are perceived as acting ingratiatingly and subserviently to white people. This puzzled me for a long time. While reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I kept waiting for the title character to do something appalling that would merit the opprobrium that is currently heaped on him but it never came. In fact, he is such a dignified, courageous, and noble person that to be called an ‘Uncle Tom’ should be regarded as a compliment not an insult. So how did this monstrous injustice arise?
It was James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2007) that explained to me how this distortion came about. Apparently the period 1890-1940, after the civil war and reconstruction, was known as ‘the nadir of American race relations’, during which
African Americans were put back into second class citizenship. During this time, white Americans, North and South joined hands to restrict black civil and economic rights… Theatrical productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin played throughout the nadir, but since the novel’s indictment of slavery was no longer congenial to an increasingly racist white society, rewrites changed Uncle Tom from a martyr who gave his life to protect his people into a sentimental dope who was loyal to kindly white masters. (p. 161, 164)
I suspect that it is now too late to rescue Uncle Tom from the ignominy that is unfairly associated with it.
‘I could care less’ may also have reached that tipping point for acceptance and has become synonymous with ‘I couldn’t care less’, even though the plain meaning of the words imply opposite things. If that is the case, I could care less.