Saturday, December 03, 2005

When the truth is a lie

Denotation vs. connotation

cel·i·ba·cy: noun
1: the state of not being married
2 a: abstention from sexual intercourse b: abstention by vow from marriage

es·trange: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): es·tranged; es·trang·ing
1: to remove from customary environment or associations
2: to arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness: ALIENATE

Languages are plastic. The meanings of words evolve. Yesterday's mistakes become today's accepted alternatives and tomorrow's preferences. I am a language usage conservative, but I understand and accept that living languages will inevitably change and adapt with time, even if I don't like it.

A curious aspect of language evolution is the creation of windows of opportunity for those who wish to exploit the transitional forms of certain words. Did you know that the original—and still primary, according to Merriam-Webster—meaning of celibacy is "unmarried"? However, celibacy is traditionally associated with chastity, the practice of refraining from sexual relations, probably because unmarried (and presumably chaste) clerics have long been the primary example of celibates. The secondary meaning of celibacy is probably, for most people today, the primary meaning. Think about it. If someone says, "I'm celibate," how would you interpret that? I rest my case.

I was reminded of the evolution of celibacy into its current usage while contemplating recent news out of the Vatican. (See Pox vobiscum.) While thinking about words that now carry connotations outweighing their formal denotations, I remembered a particular abuse that was repeatedly and irksomely brought to my attention during the controversy over Terri Schiavo. The case attained some notoriety and became a cause célèbre in the anti-abortion and right-to-life community. With great regularity, many of those protesting the court-supported decision of Michael Schiavo to discontinue his wife's nourishment via surgically implanted feeding tube referred to him as Terri's "estranged husband." The clear implication was that his relationship to his wife was damaged to the point that it was no longer appropriate for him to be making life-and-death decisions on her behalf, although the courts had repeatedly recognized his right to do so.

What does estranged mean? Strictly speaking, it means "to remove from customary environment or associations." Over the years, of course, it has picked up the additional implication of hostility or active disagreement. Merriam-Webster now gives this as a secondary meaning (as indicated in the definition quoted above), but some sources have now given primacy to the disputatious meaning of estranged. Under the circumstances of the case, there was no way in which Michael and Terri Schiavo could have been said to be fighting or disagreeing with each other, although Terri's parents and other family members were indeed in bitter dispute with Michael. The real reason that people used "estranged husband" to refer to Michael was to discredit him and impute hostility to his actions. This description of Terri's husband was used over and over again on the local Catholic radio station.

I think this was a dishonest usage, for all that the users could have turned to traditional dictionary definitions to argue the innocence of their intent and the accuracy of their description. When a word is heavily freighted with negative connotations, those who use it are responsible for introducing those factors into the debate. It's a reprehensible practice, but not a new one. Sometimes it is easier to lie when you're willing to misappropriate the truth.

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