When Words Take Strange New Meanings
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty says, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Alice replies: “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
It’s hard not to be constantly reminded of that quote when you’re listening to what passes for political discourse these days. Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” was an absurd, pompous, self-important buffoon who had a fine disdain for the actual meanings of words. These days, he’d be a politician.
Take, for example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent address at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. At several points during the speech, he referred to conservatism as the “majority view” in the United States and the country as a “majority conservative” country.
The fact-checking website Politifact, which should know better and usually does, rated Rubio’s claim as “mostly true,” while admitting that the 2011 Gallup poll found that only 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as “conservative.” Another 35 percent, according to the poll, identify as “moderate,” while 21 percent consider themselves “liberal.”
Now, I’m just a simple country lawyer, and it’s been (mumblemumble) years since I took high school civics, but I seem to recall that a “majority” meant over 50 percent. Forty percent is what they call a … let me think … a plurality. Calling 40 percent a majority isn’t mostly true; it’s completely false. It’s like examining the statement “two plus two is five” and calling it “mostly true.”
On the other hand, when Ron Paul stated that a majority of Americans favored a return to the gold standard, Politifact pointed to a poll that showed 44 percent support for that plan, and labeled the claim “false.” So 44 percent is not a majority, but 40 percent is. Through the looking glass indeed.
(Of course, to the American right, everyone not hard-right conservative is not only liberal, but “leftist” — which does not, as it turns out, mean “any political opinion with which I do not agree,” no matter how angry they get when you point that out.)
Another word that no one seems to know the meaning of anymore is “amnesty.”
Recent attempts at immigration reform that include some sort of path to citizenship for people who are here illegally frequently run into a firestorm of hysteria over granting “amnesty to illegals.” As another famous fictional character once said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Amnesty, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Pardon, in the same dictionary, means “the excusing of an offense without exacting a penalty.”
Not a single immigration reform plan submitted or supported by either party contains anything like amnesty, as it’s defined. The Immigration Reform Act of 2007, for example, allowed those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship after paying $5,000 in fines and $2,000 in processing fees and passing a background check. A more recent plan demands the payment of fines and back taxes, as well as community service, for illegals to be able to eventually get citizenship.
Believe me, if you were in court and I told you “Congratulations! You got amnesty! Just pay five grand in fines and two grand in court costs and do a hundred hours of community service and we’re good to go,” you’d most likely fire me on the spot. And rightly so, because I’d clearly have no freakin’ idea what that word means.
And yet the so-called “liberal” media — people who are supposed to be in the word business — let immigration opponents toss the word around without questioning anyone about such a blatant misuse.
Maybe, like Alice in the story, they’re just so puzzled and confused by the looking-glass world of political rhetoric that they can’t think of what to say. Or maybe they’ve just given up.
After all, when you’re dealing with people who can look at a health insurance reform plan that leaves the vast majority of the insurance market in the hands of very large, very wealthy corporations and call that plan “socialist” with a straight face, you’re clearly dealing with people who, like Humpty Dumpty, not only don’t know what words mean, they just don’t care.
Dusty Rhoades lives, writes and practices law in Carthage. Contact him at email@example.com.
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