30 November 2009

Change the meaning -- change the effect

Change the meaning -- change the effect

By Nicole E. Avery
GVL Columnist

The characters of last week's episode of South Park attempted to change the meaning of the three-letter f-word from a derogatory negativism to a term symbolizing the annoyance caused by loud, obnoxious motorcycle riders.

Kenny and the gang present their idea to re-define the word to the mayor and it is adopted but ends up backfiring. Instead of the city being commended for what they think is an act of innovativeness, they are chastised nationally and the boys involved spend the rest of the episode trying to correct the mistake by petitioning that the word change be officially added to the dictionary and the new meaning nationally accepted.

South Park is funny in its stupidity (which of course is the point) but it raised an interesting question -- is it possible to purposely change the meaning of words?

Language does change throughout time, but it doesn't seem as if it ever includes derogatory words. Once a negative word is introduced into a culture, it takes up permanent residency.

Words fall in and out of circulation, but the difference between the word "groovy" being something your mom said and the three-letter f-word is that one specifically singles out a group of people in a negative and judgmental way.

The episode I watched of South Park insinuates words can be changed if society demands it either through petition or just out stubbornness in their insistence on what they mean when they use that particular word.

This theory is seen again in George Orwell's classic novel "1984" -- language is censored by the government and thought police. Any word that could in any way sprout individual thinking is stricken from the language all together. In the novel, every year a new edition of the dictionary is published- each one smaller than the last as target words are obliterated from the very language.

The authority of the dictionary strikes me in these two instances as being more powerful than I ever thought it was before -- it is literally the authoritative code by which we speak, live and communicate.

In South Park the new definition is accepted into the dictionary but the ironic part is the word's meaning wasn't altered in a positive light but mainly picked a new target. That is proof enough to me that negative words can't really be changed, only the direction of their poison positioned to a new target.

Even if the word itself technically changed, the effect it had on the generation attached to it does not change. The gay community will still be offended only now they will be forced by society to stifle their feelings because the word has been coined "politically correct."

Perhaps it depends on the region or country you're from or even perhaps the way you were raised, but I would never accept being called derogatory names once coined for my race.

It's more than the word, it's the powerful energy once behind it and meant when it was vocalized. Somehow that hate is embodied in the word and still lingers there whenever it is spoken.

People say words only have power because people give them that power-- I wonder what names they've been called.


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