“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet when Polonius asked him what he was reading. To which Polonius asked, “What is the matter, my lord?”
Hamlet never tells us the subject matter of his reading material, but I’m guessing he wasn’t about to say, “The matter is whatever you want it to be” or “These words mean whatever you want them to mean.” In fact, one of the best comic devices used by Shakespeare (and his clever character, Hamlet) was the pun, which can only be funny if a word has a specific meaning—or, rather, double-meaning.
But we do not live anymore in Shakespeare’s time, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in modern culture: the idea that words and language can mean whatever you want them to mean.
This seems to me an effect of poor critical thinking, the current “every opinion is sacred” epidemic, and the narcissism pervading social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. No one needs to look to experts anymore because we all have the internet, so doesn’t that mean we’re all informed enough to come up with the right answer to any problem ourselves?
Let’s look at this issue at a linguistic level. My example here will be the word “blessed,” or, to put it into a context every Facebooker will understand, #blessed. Picture of a couple moving into a new house? #blessed. Got a promotion at work? #blessed. Made a really good soup for dinner after your husband went to the grocery store? #soblessed.
I recently read an article explaining what is wrong with using #blessed in this context: the idea that because you are privileged enough to live a comfortable life, the hand of God must have chosen to grace you, specifically, to receive these blessings. The insidious underbelly of this idea brings up the question: what about the poor and the hungry? Are they not worthy? (In the Bible, these are actually the people who are being called blessed—not those with material comfort). “Blessed” brings with it a wholly different connotation than, say, “grateful” or “lucky.” But when someone tries to write an article explaining how this blatant humblebrag also ties into the sinister idea that those who are well-off deserve to be so by divine order, there is immediate backlash in the comments from people who refuse to entertain criticism of something that they do or say.
These comments include the question, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to express their gratitude?” (They should, by the way; that’s not the issue. The issue is the manner in which they express their gratitude—and, perhaps, your reading comprehension). Then there are the comments that claim the meaning of “blessed” has changed simply to mean grateful (because they see other people use it in this way, and we all know no one has ever misused language in the history of the internet). Worst of all is a comment claiming that “blessed can mean whatever you want it to mean!”
And here is my problem.
A word does not mean whatever you want it to mean. If we go by this logic, I can claim that “blessed” means “cursed” or that a “chair” is actually a “table.” Now we’re getting into a problem of semiotics, and I’m sure Saussure would roll his eyes our bumbling misapprehension of sign, signifier, and signified. Regardless, you could never convince this person that “blessed” doesn’t mean whatever she wants it to mean because that’s her opinion and, remember, every opinion is sacred!
Everyone is entitled to her opinion, but opinions are not facts and no opinion should be treated as fact, unless there is solid evidence to back up the validity of said opinion. Opinions are wonderful things to have, but they are by no means sacred, and they should by no means be unchangeable. Many people cling fervently to their opinions under the assumption that their opinions should not ever change. Yet isn’t it the mark of intelligence to be willing to change one’s ideas based on new evidence and experience?
Just because you’ve used a certain word in a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t look in a dictionary and change your mind about the definition based on the evidence given by good old Webster. It doesn’t mean you can’t rethink the way that you use certain words and what unintended effects or meanings you might be delivering by using them in that way.
Language is organic and fluid, but words do have specific meanings; they don’t meant whatever you want them to mean. If that were the case, then my life’s passion (writing) would be utterly meaningless. I would never be able to convey a single coherent idea to anyone, for my readers could simply decide that my words mean something else. Sure, people have created the meanings of words because we created language; it is a wholly human construct, a way of rendering reality in a logical way, by an agreed-upon code. But you cannot deny that words carry meanings, resonances, and ideas. Who wants to live in a world where no one is able to communicate with anyone else? We would all be alone and disconnected, screaming pointlessly into a deaf and uncomprehending void.