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Verbicide: The Language of Politics and the Politics of Language

Verbicide: The Language of Politics and the Politics of Language

On his blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, Brenton Dickieson tells us that C.S. Lewis in his Studies in Words defined “verbicide” as the “murder of words.” Dickieson adds that “Lewis has some similar concerns as George Orwell in his ‘Politics and the English Language.’ Words can be politicized or bent into the service of those who are peddling products or ideas.”

The 21st century has given us a multitude of these vampires, who—having sucked the original meanings out of certain nouns and verbs—then use the carcasses to sell certain ideologies or to confuse the rest of us. Here is a partial list of these zombie words.

Liberal. The old-time liberalism typified by politicians like Hubert Humphrey has been pushing up daisies for decades. Once, liberalism meant supporting individual rights and freedoms, the free market, and limited government. In no shape or sense should “liberal” apply to any politician today in the Democratic Party. For the time being, we should put a toe tag on liberal as a political descriptor.

Conservative. This word is still breathing but on life support. For years now, a number of politicians and commentators claiming to be conservative have in fact been only a hop, skip, and jump behind the radical ideas of the left. A recent case in point: Those opinion makers who rail against a man identifying as a woman participating in female sports usually refer to that “woman” by his adopted female name. By that usage, they have already lost half the battle.

Moreover, what is it, exactly, conservatives wish to conserve? Conservatives are supposed to uphold Western tradition, culture, and values. But as the above example illustrates, many commentators and politicians can no longer even conserve the difference between men and women.

Republic. When asked what sort of government the Constitution had given Americans, Ben Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” We haven’t kept it. With the exception of the Pledge of Allegiance, where we vow fealty “to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands,” the word republic has long gone missing from common usage. Here’s a little experiment: Ask your friends or family members “What is a republic?” You’ll either be met with a blank stare or gobbledygook along the lines of that heard at a White House press briefing.

Several totalitarian nations—notably, the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—have outright murdered what a republic actually is. Here in America, we’ve simply forgotten that a republic once meant a form of government where the citizens elect representatives to make decisions in government.

Democracy. Some people, most egregiously those who call themselves progressives, use the word democracy as a cudgel, beating down opposition by crying, “We must protect American democracy.” But if democracy means one person, one vote, then in the last few decades, and particularly in the last two elections, we have done a number on democracy. Democracy also means that no one is above the law, but given the many Hunter Bidens of our day, that idea is also in the boneyard.

Outside the political realm, other words have also seen their meanings mangled or sapped. Truth, beauty, goodness, virtue, manhood, woman, marriage, family: These and more are turned upside down in their meanings, blighted in their import, or mocked. “It is not just a verbicidal age, but we are verbicides,” writes Dickieson. “We are word-killing maniacs wandering around the digital library of culture with guns for tongues.”

From this mayhem of verbicide, however, springs some opportunities. For one, greater awareness can wake us from our lethargy. When politicians declare they want to protect us from attacks on “our democracy,” we might ask ourselves what they really mean. Are they sincere, or are they using democracy as a smoke screen to achieve some other goal?

We also have the chance to become amateur linguists, investigating, for instance, what the Greeks, Romans, and our own Founders meant by a republic. Robert A. Taft, Russell Kirk, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr., and Thomas Sowell are all branded as conservatives. What do they have in common? What are their differences? If we want to come up with a working knowledge of other terms, we can follow this same process of investigation and so formulate some more accurate definitions.

Verbicide has serious consequences in our culture. When we don’t all understand the definitions of terms, it’s incredibly difficult to have honest discussions with those who are still open to such conversations. It also gives politicians and others among the elite more ways to lie to us: Selling one unpalatable idea under the guise of a more palatable term is a lot easier when our definitions are muddled.

One recent example of verbicide involves Bethany Mandel, author of Stolen Youth, a book about how woke ideology is destroying childhood. Bethany was asked during an interview to provide a basic definition of the word woke. She froze and was unable to reply straightaway. Her failure went viral, and in an article for Newsweek, she recounts the reasons for her “brain freeze.”

Some will sympathize with Mandel—I am one of them—but the lesson is painfully obvious. To prevent verbicide, we need to know the meaning of the words we use.

Image credit: RawPixel, CC0 1.0


Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick

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  • Avatar
    March 24, 2023, 2:45 pm

    Jeff, I appreciate Intellectual Takeout and your articles in particular. In regards to "WOKE" I wondered to what it meant. Then at three o'clock one sleepless night it came to me. According to Genesis the serpent asked Eve about the forbidden fruit and told her it would make her like God, knowing good and evil. Until that time she only knew good. Fast forward to our time and it to me is obvious that "woke" means "We Only Know Evil".

  • Avatar
    March 26, 2023, 8:16 pm

    I'd like to address the first word on the list: liberal, because it's important, and though it is politically moribund, is still important for our understanding.

    The modern era was initiated through the invention of the printing press, and the spread of knowledge. This led to the eventual collapse of the old order where kings and popes ran the world.

    For many centuries, Europeans had perceived themselves as inhabiting a stable, divinely ordered world. As this dark age ended, the modern era began with an emerging consciousness that the world order was not suitable for the world of the future. People gained a destabilizing sense that, in fact, tomorrow was going to be different from the past, and different from today.

    The old systems and values were wrong, corrupt, and ineffective to meet the needs of the world ahead. People understood this, but they didn't know what to replace it with.

    Thus began the modern, or liberal era. New social experiments were tried, as people began to blindly grope their way through the age of enlightenment. Liberalism allowed a certain tolerance to new ideas, as people, who did not know the right way to order society, needed some leeway to try different things. The age of -isms emerged.

    These ideologies represented different ways of distributing rights, privileges, and costs through the social fabric. Thus, I think it is altogether fair to characterize every one of them as a subset of liberalism. Socialism, communism, feminism, fascism, totalitarianism, hedonism, racism, corporatism, the whole lot of them, including conservatism, are all direct products of the liberalism which took hold as banks and government bureaucracies came to replace popes and kings.

    Liberalims's strength was that it had a level of tolerance for wrong answers. This was necessary in a world where nobody had much in the way of right answers.

    The problem we now face, as the modern era is winding down, is that liberalism makes no allowance for right answers. Science, for example, is designed to give us provisional, not absolute knowledge. If someone says, "there are two sexes, male and female, and there is no doubt to be had", then we glimpse a profoundly unscientific, and illiberal perspective. It turns out that, in a world where liberalism reigns supreme, only wrong answers can be tolerated.

    To a liberal, a claim like, "1+1=2" appears very much like the old authoritarianism we were trying to free ourselves from to start with, and as soon as you agree that 1+1 does indeed equal 2, without a doubt, you are, strictly speaking, no longer a liberal.

    Liberalism has been extremely effective at eroding old systems, undermining old values, and bringing down preexisting social orders, but liberalism is incapable of confidently providing right answers. To do so is to abandon the whole liberal oeuvre.

    If you love your children without doubt or hesitation, for example, liberals will become very suspicious. They see it as being profoundly immoral, by the liberal compass, and they can become resentful and even angry and morally disturbed. The liberal mind is programmed to deny, not seek, confidence in truth. Truth claims threaten liberal power.

    So I think that, in fact, we must not abandon the word 'liberal' at this time, because this way of running society through sowing discord and doubt has gone global, and we are witnessing it's effects in every facet of human life.

    Liberalism is no way to run a sustainable society. Once everything has been torn down, misused, deliberately and systematically misunderstood, and wrecked, through doubt, ignorance, and fear, there won't be much left for mankind. It's important to understand the nature of this beast, so that when the din grows silent, we can still be here to confidently proclaim what we know is right, good, beneficial, and true.


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