Words and LGBTQ Justice: Introduction

LGBTQ: Language and Justice, part 1

Words, words, words. Loving words! Fighting words! Words both reflect and form the world we live in. Just to say something as simple, straightforward and objective as “the cat is on the mat,” is to endorse picking out from the flow of experience certain objects to call “cats” certain objects to call “mats,” and that the relation of “on” is something to which attention is worth paying attention.

The meanings are always changing. I’m going to talk a lot about words today as we celebrate LGBTQ people and their lives among us. If we grow more comfortable with the fact that words are always shifting around on us – sometimes rather slowly and sometimes with dizzying speed – then maybe we can use them better in creating a welcoming world of care and respect.

So let’s look at the nature of words.

Did you ever notice that every time we learn something, it changes the meaning of words? "Learn something,” this might be discovering something about the world. When we discovered that water was H2O, it changed the meaning of water – and of hydrogen and oxygen. These three terms were now interconnected as they hadn’t been before.

“Learn something” can also mean deciding to adapt some way of talking and thinking. Two of my favorite examples are from the history of science. "Planet" originally meant wandering star. Mars is in Capricorn right now, and Venus is in Gemini. In another month or so, Mars will have drifted over to Aries and Venus will be in Cancer. They are stars – but they wander.

Then we learned that Mars and Venus -- and Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn -- aren’t stars. Can we still call them wandering stars if they aren’t stars? We could have said, “OK, we have learned that there are no such things as planets, as wandering stars. Those things we thought were planets aren’t stars, so we have to call them something else.” We didn’t do that. Instead, we changed the definition of the word “planet.” And not just a little. We changed the essence of the definition: "planet" had been a STAR that wandered. We decided we would still call them planets, even though they aren’t stars.

As we learn, we redefine our words to reflect what we know.

Another example is the word “atom.” It means “indivisible – cannot be divided.” Whatever else we might know or learn about those tiny objects, that they could not be divided was their one essential attribute. Then we found out we could split them. Did we say, “Oh, those things aren’t atoms. They aren’t indivisible, so we can’t call them atoms”? No. We did not say that. We kept right on calling them atoms, and just changed our definition – changed our understanding of what the word meant.

I mention these examples to say that sometimes it isn’t just peripheral connotations of words that change – the way that, in my lifetime, the word “clown” changed from being something not at all scary to, now, something that is often scary. No: these are cases where the central essence of the thing was re-defined right out of it.

And no one – as far as I’ve been able to find – cared. If Galileo was ever met with outraged voices saying, “You can’t redefine planet,” I haven’t been able to locate an indication of it. When scientists announced they had split the atom, no one protested they were violating the sanctity of the language. There was some concern that they might have been violating the sanctity of nature, but no worries about language.

Actually, I did happen to witness one case of an objection to a tweak that scientists made in the meaning of a word. The word was “accelerate,” which Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 defined as “To make quick, to hasten, to quicken motion; to give a continual impulse to motion, so as perpetually to increase." But scientists needed the word to refer the rate of change in velocity, whether speeding up or slowing down. My mother, a physics and chemistry professor, posed a question to my sister and me one evening at the dinner table when I was, maybe, age 12. “If you throw a rock into the air, straight up – perfectly vertical – it will reach its topmost point, and then start to come straight down. At that instant at the top, is the rock accelerating?”
My father, an English professor, interjected, "No. For just an instant it's not moving at all."
“At that instant it is stopped,” agreed Mom. “But it’s still accelerating. Acceleration means that its velocity is changing, and the rock’s velocity is changing throughout its trajectory – on the way up and on the way down.”
“No,” said my father, “that is not what 'acceleration' means. You scientists don’t get to change the English language.”

So, OK, yeah, sometimes there’s some objection along the way. Yet the process rolls along -- words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. As we learned more about motion, we saw that all regular changes in velocity were mathematically describable, and we needed the word “accelerate” to refer to all such changes, not just to speeding up. So, my father notwithstanding, scientists changed the language.

When it isn’t just science, but central institutions of society that are at stake, there’s liable to be more uproar over definition shifts.

NEXT: Evolving meanings of "marriage"

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This is part 1 of 3 of "LGBTQ: Language and Justice"
See also
Part 2: What Changed the Meaning of Marriage
Part 3: Gender Identities: Continua and Ambiguities

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