Words, Definitions, and Prescriptivism

Friday March 11, 2022 — Taipei, Taiwan

I think we lack the language to talk properly about language.

I’ve written quite a handful of times about my feelings on specific words, and ways in which they’re popularly misused, but there are countless more times that I see language slowly transforming in ways that make it less and less useful and don’t write about it, largely from self-consciousness about ending up as “old man yells at constantly shifting nature of language.”

I do still write about misuse and dilution of language sometimes, though, since it seems too important not to. As I write about this more, I’m coming to the realization that we’re severely lacking in good cultural framework for talking productively about shifts in the meaning of language.

One common way of categorizing ways of talking about language is Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. Ironically, though, these terms themselves have been stripped of their context and diluted in meaning as they’ve seen wider adoption: they were originally used to talk about approaches to doing anthropological linguistic work, but have since been co-opted and applied to normal people discussing their own languages. Saying that people should not say that some use of language is “correct” and some is “incorrect” makes sense in anthropological study, but is ridiculous in the context of people having opinions about languages they know: it’s good for people to have opinions! When people disagree about what a word “should” mean, that’s not a sign that they should care less about “shoulds” — it’s a sign that conversation is needed so that we can construct the most useful language for any given conversation.

What I mean by “the most useful language for any given conversation” is that different meanings of words are useful for discussing different kinds of things, so there isn’t a “best” meaning for any word — just a meaning that is best for a particular purpose. It’s important to be honest about what your purposes are in constructing language.

This honesty requires realizing that language is fundamentally about ideology, which many people are uncomfortable discussing. Certainly many people working to change the meaning of existing words try their best to avoid talking about ideology when they think it would be unpopular — for instance, people talking about how their tech company is “democratizing” something, for instance, are unlikely to be happy when people point out that there is no actual democracy involved, because the entire thing is entirely owned and controlled by a handful of obscenely wealthy venture capitalists.

It’s particularly important to notice this connection between language and ideology now that the internet is hyperaccelerating the rate at which language changes and is created.

For instance, the term “lovebombing” saw a huge spike in interest in the wake of west elm caleb, which is notably not an instance of any actual lovebombing happening, as far as I’ve seen. This sudden surge of awareness of lovebombing makes a delicate time for definitions — it’s easy for the popular definition to settle around the specific instance that people first heard of it in, regardless of whether that use is generally applicable or useful.This phenomenon is particularly troubling for lovebombing and west elm caleb, since lovebombing is a legitimately useful word, and it seems likely that people will write it off if their only exposure to it is as a justification for tens of thousands of people harassing a dude who treated people he met on dating apps sort of badly. This is also not even getting into the shifting definition of lovebombing previously — it was coined to talk about cults, and only really referred to the initial stages of people interactions, then shifted to be more about a pattern of withholding and then tactically deploying affection in abusive romantic relationships — a definition that is, in my mind actually more useful. Now it’s firmly in the scope of romantic relationships, but unfortunately seems to be sliding back to being more about the initial phases of relationships rather than being about patterns — a much less useful definition, in my mind.

These shifts can happen more slowly as well — for instance, “gaslighting” has been trickling into popular consciousness since 2016, and has seen a sort of tug of war around definitions, which Carmen Maria Machado describes well in her (excellent) memoir, In The Dream House:

People who have never seen Gaslight, or who have only read secondhand descriptions of it, often say that Gregory’s entire purpose — the reason he “makes the lamps flicker” — is to drive Paula mad, as though that is the sum of his desires. This is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the story. In fact, Gregory has an extremely comprehensible motivation for his actions — the need to search for the jewels unimpeded by Paula’s presence. The flickering gas lamps are a side effect of that pursuit, and even his deliberate madness-inducing machinations are directed to this very sensible end. And yet, there is an unmistakable air of enjoyment behind his manipulation. You can plainly see the microexpressions flit across his face as he improvises, torments, schemes. He enjoys it and it serves him, and he is twice satisfied.

This is all to say, his motivations are not unexplainable. They are, in fact, aggravatingly practical—driven by greed, augmented by a desire for control, shot through with a cat’s instinct for toying with its prey. A reminder, perhaps, that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something, and not care how they get it.

We should be careful not to say that the definition of the word should fundamentally be tied to its origin, but in this case, the original context seems to offer a more useful lens for many situations: while there are people who “gaslight” for the “fun” of it, it’s much more common for people to want something they know they shouldn’t have, take it, and simply deny that the whole affair ever took place.

The three situations I’ve described here — “democratizing” being intentionally co-opted, “lovebombing” being thrust into the spotlight in a highly specific and idiosyncratic context, and “gaslighting” slowly filtering through layers of retelling and redefining — are all quite different, and I believe require different tools and perspectives to talk about.

My primary concern, though, isn’t exactly that we’ll use the wrong tools: rather, my concern is that the entire concept that we should care about the meaning of language seems to be under siege. Most people’s exposure to careful thinking about the rules of language is in school, where the vast majority of the rules that are taught are, in fact, essentially useless, and structural analysis takes a back seat to appeals to authority, if it even shows up at all. With that background, it’s understandable that many people’s first reaction to being told that they’re using language poorly is frustration.I’m not advocating constantly telling people that they’re “using language poorly” whenever they use a word in a way when you disagree with — obviously, it’s important to make tactical decisions about whether engaging with someone is going to be productive, and to be polite and constructive when you do decide to engage. That being said, I think it’s common for people to miscategorise useful nuance as pedantry, because a lot of the time conversations about that nuance look the same as much more annoying and common pedantry.

For my part, I try to do my best to explain why I think these things are important, and to point directly to the ideological work that different definitions do. I’m not sure yet how much of this is tilting at windmills,Funnily enough, this use of “tilting at windmills” is itself a case of shifting definitions — in its original context, the phrase was used exclusively to describe imaginary enemies, but it’s slowly grown to encompass misdirected but heroic efforts to fight against real enemies. I’m inclined to think that the new meaning is more useful — it’s certainly a situation I frequently want to describe — but I’m far from certain about that. but it feels important to me.

I’m hopeful that by doing so, I can encourage more people to put some consideration towards definitions that they notice shifting, and to take some stands of their own. We’re all responsible for the commons of language — let’s make sure we take care of it.