Re: RARA-AVIS: Back into the definitional whirlpool

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 15 May 2004

Jim wrote:

'The Humpty-Dumpty rule. "When I use a word it means precisely what I want it to mean. No more, no less."

'Here's the thing, Mark. When Lewis Carroll put those words into Humpty-Dumpty's mouth, he meant it to be a DEBUNKING of that attitude.'

However, in satirizing the shifting definitions of words, Carroll was acknowledging the phenomenon. There's no need to debunk that which does not exist.

Furthermore, are you seriously claiming that the meanings of words do not change? Leaving aside whether or not you think they should, are you actually arguing they don't? The meanings of words are social constructions. As cultures change, so do the meanings of some words. Take, for example, the labels we use for race. According to Randall Kennedy's book on the subject, in the 1600s, the "N word" was not at all pejorative. Derived from the Latin word for the color black, it was simply the word used to describe the race of natives of Africa. However, I doubt that arguing that that was the word's original meaning would excuse the use of that word today. The history of racial relations in the US has added a whole lot of other shadings to that word. The denotation has remained constant, but as the culture has changed, so has the connotation of that word.

This is just one example.


# Plain ASCII text only, please.  Anything else won't show up.
# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
#  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 15 May 2004 EDT