Then the Word quickly became taken out of context. It was associated with ‘beginning’ things, the creator’s personal clique and that party where Lucifer left in a huff. The Word became a sly insult, even though there was no change in spelling or pronunciation.
Over time, the Word came to mean something completely different. Its evolution saw it take up a pile of emotional baggage and then lose it all at some foreign terminal before slipping back into common usage through a back door. Dictionaries struggle to keep up and are typically on the back foot when it comes to providing a comprehensive description of the Word’s current denotation.
As any linguist knows (or tourist with a Lonely Planet phrase book, for that matter), a strict reductionist approach to language is doomed to failure. It’s like a geneticist trying to understand how an organism functions by only looking at the protein translations of each gene – it overlooks the multiple effects of how fundamental units work within a greater context. Dictionaries and translation guides might give a rough idea of what a single word might mean in a generalised fashion, but beyond that they’re good for pressing flowers and taking up valuable shelf space.
A famous Australian athlete was recently the centre of attention for all of the wrong reasons when she boasted about a favourable rugby union win by quipping on Twitter, ‘Suck on that, faggots’. Enter press vultures, minority-group talking heads and anybody else with an opinion on sport-celebrity worship and homophobia.
The word ‘gay’ has had a rather adventurous journey over the past century, progressing from something Fred Flintstone would describe his parties as to something Barney Rubble would one day come out of the closet as (yeah, come on…it’s obvious), to eventually becoming a pejorative implying something to be weak or unsuitable. This back-and-forth struggle over the word’s meaning is usually taken to belie a single, deeper driving force; in this case, one of homophobia. So too, words like ‘faggot’ have evolved under conditions of hatred, fear and generous helpings of misinformation.
However, the second driving force of word usage is that of the social paradigm. We don’t always use words for their denotative meaning, but often for select connotative ones that are emphasised within our personal tribes. The Aussie tradition of ribbing your friends often leads to borrowing pejoratives out of an ironic implication. That doesn’t let this particular athlete off the hook, however – we always have a responsibility for considering the implications of various connotations a term will have on our entire audience. Not expecting individuals within a diverse audience to feel uncomfortable about a tweet that uses the word ‘faggots’ is rather naïve, even if it is born out of a habit of not thinking before writing.
Absence of consideration of the tokens of information that hide amongst the word’s shadows – including the substantial impact of body language, tone and context – frequently leads to heated discussions such as this. We each bring our own cultural assumptions regarding the subtle differences in what a word implies. For some, ‘faggot’ is deeply offensive. For another individual on the other side of the city, their own sociocultural context blinds them to its barbs and emphasises its playfulness. In crossing between cultural boundaries, what is a cheeky jibe is seen as a hate crime. Of course, the distinction is not a clear boundary. For it to have evolved, it needed ignorance. It needed people to forget the impact words have in getting past out cognitive defences and changing how we feel without our detection. We might not use words in considering their diverse implications, but they exist nonetheless, confusing communication when we least expect it.
The culture of cyberspace is crippled by its own blindness. Devoid of non-verbal cues, often deprived of the immediacy of direct feedback, and distanced from the audience by time and space, communication is severely handicapped. The saga of the rationalist surge ‘Tone Wars’ is a perfect testimony to this, with calls to come up with concrete definitions of what it means to be a ‘dick’, all the while people are providing perfect examples of the behaviour in comments and blogs.
Yet to be fair, the blog bubbles that concentrate such heated debates do the act of communication such disservice, one has to try hard not to be perceived as ‘dickish’. Tools we frequently use in everyday life, such as wry smiles, rising and falling tones, nodding, or even the ability to quickly gauge how an audience interprets the use of a term, don’t exist in the comments section of a backwater blog. Rarely do those engaging in web-based discussions give the benefit of the doubt to an author, seizing on a turn of phrase and demanding for a duel to the death with dictionaries at dawn.
On the flip side, it’s easy to hide in the shadows of a word. We might all think we know what ‘God’ means, yet typically forget that the term often lacks clear defining features, being stretched to imply vague notions of ‘something out there’. Science, as I’ve often said in this blog, suffers greatly from its own vague meaning. Some do this intentionally, while others are simply oblivious to the fact and carry on with the presumption that meaning will be magically transferred from one mind to another fully intact.
Knowing the power of the word as well as its limitations goes a long way towards being an effective science communicator, even if those limitations mean one cannot ever be perfect at the game. Larger audiences will tend to equate diverse cultural backgrounds, and tuning language to suit everybody can often rob it of much of its heart and essential subtext. But finding the balance is important for getting benefits out of any discussion.