What do words mean?

Language is a tricky thing. It isn’t static, but evovles over time, by the introduction of new words, phrases, grammar and so on, and by movement in the meaning of words. New words are obvious, new meanings less so; moreover, as the new meaning becomes dominant, phrases using words in their old meanings either become unintelligible or are co-opted to the words’ new meanings. Most of the time, such shifts are subterranean, and matter little. But we should nevertheless be aware of this, so that we can make the necessary adjustments when it does matter. An example is provided by the front of today’s Sunday Independent (html | pdf):

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After Jesus had preached on the banks of the Jordan, the disciples were preventing some children being brought to him. As for what happened next, (Mark 10:14), the King James version of the Bible says:

But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

Now, the same verse in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible has it thus:

But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Plainly, then, ‘suffer’ in the King James version is used in its now archaic but then common meaning of ‘allow’ or ‘let’, and it has since evolved first into ‘tolerate’ and now into ‘hurt’ or ‘pain’. What this illustrates, I suppose, is not so much that words mean what I choose them to mean, neither more nor less; rather that words mean instead what we all choose them to mean.

The editor of the Sunday Independent should know what the bible verse means. And that should be one reason why he should not today have used that headline and the photograph below it. The other reason, of course, is that responsible journalism, and responsible editorialism, would not have put them there in the first place. I think the headline makes the photo worse, but I am not entirely comfortable with the photo either. Of course, I would not ban or otherwise restrict the headline and photograph. The Sunday Independent is perfectly at liberty to print this. But I am disappointed that, this being so, the editor chose to exercise his freedom of expression in this way.

However, in the end, the real fault here is not in the newspaper but with us, the readers, that we would buy a paper with this on the front page. This headline and attendant photograph pander to the worst in us. And I am sad that the newspaper should reflect this of us in this way. So the problem is a social one: what is about our society that this is the kind of front page that sells? And are we comfortable with a society like that? And if we don’t like the front page, the remedy is not to ban the expression, nor merely to decline to purchase the paper, nor even to call for a boycott of the paper, but to change ourselves, to change the kind of society which buys this kind of journalism. If we get the newspapers and headlines we deserve, what can we do to deserve better? Not buying the paper would of course be a start. Persuading others of the merits of that course of action would be the next step. Persuading editors of the imprudence of this kind of headline and photo would soon follow. In other words, that very freedom of expression which the editor exercises in putting this on the front page ought to be exercised now by others to peruade him that it should not happen again. The best answer to speech is more speech; the best answer to words is more words, whatever those words mean.

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