Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —