Communication is difficult – difficult not least because words are just that, words –elusive, labile, nebulous, protean and mutably laden. It would be nice if a word meant what it putatively means in a dictionary, but there it is only a kind of dead instar mounted on a page much like some stuffed predator eternally fixed within the protective vitrine of a staid museum. Yes, you see that leopard on display there, inches from you, but you have no idea how it smells, how it runs, how one minute it may scamper away from you, how the next minute, mercurial, it may launch itself towards you and, rending flesh, leave you faceless. Similarly, you have no idea in what reckless predations a word untethered from the civilized constraints of a prescriptive page in a dictionary may engage out there in the very real universe of our quotidian language usage.
This is where my notion – which I baptize with the hybrid phrase ‘semantic torquing’ — comes in.
The word ‘semantic’ (from Greek σῆμα sēma ‘sign, token’) of course speaks to signification, ‘meaning’; the word ‘torquing’ (from Latin torqueō ‘spin, twist’) goes to the issue of how the signifying content of a word (much like, e.g., the narrative content of political discourse) is ‘spun’ – affirmatively and assertively managed, modulated, manipulated, metamorphosed – for purposes of a given immediacy. From the point of view of its timeless immutability in the dictionary, out here on the feral savannah of living lexical life our specimen, beholden only to the pragmatic imperatives of circumstance, roams wild and uncontrolled and adopts, as it adapts to, the coercive dictates of the actual world.
Take a word like ‘traditional’. Etymologically, ‘tradition / traditional’ (< Latin trādō) speaks to a connection with what’s been ‘passed on, handed down’, and in that bare sense the word is quite neutral – after all, what’s passed on or handed down could be something good, something bad, or just something neutral. But as so often happens, the figurative – metaphorical — potentiation of human language kicks in, and a kind of symbolic extension begins to accrete around a word or phrase, much like barnacles on a ship’s hull. The word becomes freighted, and the tendency is for it to go positive — as it were — or negative, and in whatever direction it drifts, that is the domain it will generally inhabit.
Now, what passes through your mind when you read or hear the word ‘traditional’? Is it something good, something bad, neither? What are some of its collocated associates that pop into your mind when you encounter it? Probably for you, as for me, such affirming, positive pals as ‘marriage’, ‘family’ and ‘values’. Imagine, then, reading the following: “Somalia is a deeply traditional place, where 98 percent of girls are subject to genital cutting, according to United Nations figures.” (Jeffrey Gettleman “For Somali Women, Pain of Being a Spoil of War”, The New York Times, Wednesday 28 December 2011, front page). The word is here ripped out of the cozy semantic domain it shares with ‘marriage’, ‘family’ and ‘values’, and, as violently deracinated as those wretched ‘spoils of war’ here addressed, is hijacked and torqued into monstrous meaning to describe the unspeakable obscenities of ‘collateral damage’ (another one of those emesis-triggering military euphemisms for the consequences of a behavioral repertoire so barbaric that it dares not mention its true name). For all its descriptive fondness of lush and leaking deaths, even Homer’s Iliad rarely sinks perversely to such depths.
The word ‘traditional’, then, is in this instance to my mind so frowardly fraught and freighted, so lexically spun till it reels, so shamelessly exculpating, so … that henceforth to encounter or use it in its … traditional … sense more than merits a second thought. Yes, yes, of course the lexicon changes, expands, morphs – or we’d all be grunting some pre-Proto-Indo-European dialect – but I still register my unhappiness with the present deployment of the word under discussion. To my way of thinking, this kind of lexical torquing is, quite simply, a horrid example of semantic pejoration.