Dr Ian McDonald’s column headlined, “The responsibility to use words accurately” (SN, 7/10/2018), is an interesting read.
As found in a Google search, etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The implications are at odds with any word being held to the pinnacle of having a single meaning. Except for yes or no.
Pick up any English dictionary and look for the meaning of a particular word, and you run into a phalanx of words with similar meanings and variations that no interpretation or understanding can be construed to be a wholly accurate reflection of the particular word. “Accuracy” of the meaning of a word, to be of some merit, has to be conflated with the context of the narrative, epoch, audience, and suchlike, to ingrain the exactness of meaning pursued by Ian.
And even then, we have the inconstancy and ever-changing meanings of words that make a mockery of accuracy and exactness in the use of words. In addition, each individual has his or her own interpretation of the meaning of a word and how it should be used; thus, exacerbating the “accuracy” pursued.
One solution is to define key words in your writings to ensure the reader is in sync with the purpose of your view point. The prognosis that we could have absolute accuracy in the use of words is close to impossible. We have some Philologists and Etymologists, whose views have transcended their mortal life cycle, yet they still provide precepts and helpful thoughts on the source, meanings and use of words. Individuals of relatively recent vintage, who are considered by many to be maestros on the nuances of language include Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784; Henry Mencken, 1880-1956; Frantz Fanon, 1925-1961; and Bertrand Russell, 1872-1976.
Samuel Johnson, the celebrated lexicographer, stated that “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things they denote.” Johnson seems to recognise that “accuracy” of words is subjective nor can words have lasting unambiguity.
The controversial Henry Mencken, known as the sage of Baltimore, who was adept at coining and creating new words, was of the view that language was an evolving, dynamic, partisan, pragmatic and living social interaction. His magnum opus ‘The American Language’, ranked 49th on the list of the greatest non-fiction books, is a treasure trove on the different meanings of words and the context of language. Probably torturing those who seek “accuracy”, he noted, “To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies — the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said — there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.”
Franz Fanon in his seminal works, ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, also focused on the dynamics of language and words to understand the ill-effects of colonisation and racism on society; the nuances of words, context, tone and historical and cultural inferences cannot be correlated to the “accuracy” of words. Really, there is no such universal plateau as an accurate word.
Bertrand Russell’s most significant contribution to the philosophy of language is the ‘Theory of Descriptions’. What are descriptions but words with multiple meanings. Russell argued that the arrangement of words often does not correlate to their logical meaning. It follows from Russell’s view that the arrangement of words is as vital to the meaning or “accurate” interpretation of words; and that semantics can be voided by syntax or the meaning of words can be voided by how they are arranged.
I will now indebt myself to Tacuma Ogunseye in closing, by quoting from his recent letter to Stabroek News dated September 29th; where he noted that: “Our absence of historical memory and our present worldview negatively affect every area of our lives”; and may I add, the “accuracy” of language.
Ogunseye’s statement above is provided a solid foundation by Samuel Johnson’s expression that “There is no tracing the connection of ancient nations, but by language; and therefore, I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.”