Steal This Word

hippie manWay back yonder in the 60s—you kids gather around and I’ll tell you…hey, hey, put that iPod down and listen to what I’m saying here. So back in the 1960s , when I was young and we had just invented both sex and love, fairly similar concepts at the time, as an afterthought we were going to cure the world of war. In order to do this we needed to grow our hair long and not brush it and wear really vivid clothing.

There is a long tradition in human history, ever since we learned to use language, of older people thinking that young people are a bunch of lazy disrespectful dumbshits and the world is going to hell. Socrates said that young people “have bad manners, contempt for authority”. Now that my generation has become the old people, I notice the tradition continues. Back in the 60s, to express their disgust, some of the older people called us “freaks”.

Of course the word “freak” was meant to be derogatory, but an interesting phenomenon occurred. Because words are basically noises, a word acquires both its meaning and power from social usage, and the negative meaning of a word can be attenuated, or removed entirely, if people use it differently. So young people began to refer to themselves proudly as freaks, as in the song “Almost Cut My Hair” by Crosby, Stills and Nash: “I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”

The practice of taking a word and deliberately changing its meaning can be found repeatedly, no doubt all around the world. A more recent example is a shift with the word “queer” to refer to a homosexual. When I was in high school, the word was practically spoken in dark whispers about an odd boy or two. Now the word has been aggressively claimed and proclaimed, as in the name of a gay rights organization, Queer Nation.

Shifting the meaning of a word can also go in other directions. In the last 20 years, the term “liberal” has diminished in the United States as a political description. The beliefs themselves haven’t dramatically changed, but the word has acquired a slightly (or more than slightly) derogatory connotation. Of course people who disagree with the political ideas of liberalism would always have thought of the word negatively, but starting maybe 20 years ago, even liberals themselves began slowly edging away from the word.

So now we see the word “progressive” everywhere, a word with quite a different meaning to my way of thinking. Why have liberals turned and run from the word “liberal”? I suggest that the word was stolen from them, but liberals had to participate in that change by passivity. They allowed people who disliked liberal ideas to turn “liberal” into a dirty word, and instead of standing up for their own label, even though liberals did not change their ideas, they slunk off and became “progessives”.

drawing of fistIn our current political climate, the word “conservative” is now being stolen as well. Once again the people who believe in those ideas are participating in the loss through passivity. Contrary to “liberal”, however, the word “conservative” is still very much in vogue, but the definition is shifting. The people who most loudly claim this word not only claim it, but angrily and aggressively demand adherence to their übercorrect way of thinking.

The fist-in-the-air rants of the Tea Party that they are the only conservatives gives them a very public voice, but having the loudest voice does not remotely make a person correct. In fact, extremism is not conservative, it is radical. The Tea Party’s Soviet-like insistence on purity of belief is a clear sign that there is nothing “conservative” about such people.

And yet, like the liberals before them, real conservatives are cringing and cowering—and it is damn well not pretty to watch. The difference in this case is that while liberals kept their beliefs and gave up the word, conservatives are retaining the word and altering their beliefs. Yes indeed, comrade, you are the most conservative.

stone carving with land of purity

1 Comment

Filed under Language

One response to “Steal This Word

  1. “It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car. But I’m not giving an inch to fear because I promised myself this year.” David Crosby.
    Happy Thanksgiving, David Hutto.

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