Words Matter. Definitions Matter.

Words Matter. Definitions Matter.

Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Tuesday, January 17, 2023

What is happening is not a merely semantic game or the demand that we deny reality. It is the assertion of power. Speaking truth to power—real truth that reflects reality—is thus a term worth appropriating from the left. For it is in our speech, in our speaking, that the first line of resistance to this power-grab can be mounted.

There has been much concern expressed about the recent decision of the editors of the Cambridge Dictionary to supplement the definition of woman as “an adult female human being” with “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”

It is for sure a disturbing development but it is also worth remembering that dictionaries are an interesting phenomenon. In part, they are prescriptive: they help to stabilize a word’s meaning by giving formal definitions of said word. But they are also descriptive, in that they reflect the way a word is used in various contexts. Thus, the Cambridge Dictionary also includes “a wife or female sexual partner” as an informal definition, though this seems to have provoked no outrage, either past or present, for the simple reason that it may not be an exhaustive answer to the question “What is a woman?” but nonetheless reflects a common cultural use of the term.

Other terms have changed their dictionary-defined meaning over time. “Tory,” for example, originally meant a dispossessed Irish outlaw, typically used as a pejorative. In the American War of Independence, it was used for those colonists who supported the British. Now it typically means a member or supporter of the British Conservative Party. Yes, it might still be used as a pejorative, but that is not necessarily so. And Tory as Irish outlaw no longer merits a reference in the Cambridge Dictionary because that usage has long since vanished.

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