In 1871, when Through the Looking-Glass was published, Lewis Carroll had it right. Words can mean whatever we want them to.
People use words to communicate. And if we sincerely want others to understand our meaning, then we must work hard to make sure we mean what we say—and say what we mean—with as little confusion as possible. Aren’t we all familiar with the dreadful feeling we get when we realize we’ve been misunderstood?
But what about when the intention is to confuse? Getting right to the point, this presidential election (all elections?) is an ongoing example of giving multiple meanings to words with the intention to confuse and manipulate. Communication is always a two-way course, however, and the problem gets worse when we insist on hearing meanings that were never intended. If you’ve followed the campaigns, I’m sure you can come up with plenty of your own examples.
Here’s a short list of words loaded with multiple and conflicting meanings:
- Patriotism, patriot
- Terror, terrorist
- Lie, liar
- Fair, fairness
- Freedom, liberty
- Middle class
- Health care
I’m sure there are many others, but I’ve saved the most maligned and malleable word for last: Truth. When truth is no more than what you believe or what you want it to mean, then it has no value at all.
Original illustration from Through the Looking-Glass by John Tenniel.