It is natural for language to evolve, indeed that is what makes it robust. English, the language that seeks to retain its pristine identity that never was, is probably the most mauled of them all. This of course is its strength. It’s very malleability makes it relevant, even localised. But whether by design or serendipity, the words in the language have broadly meant the same all over the world. The words have traveled, and with them their meanings. Many of them have been new words, as witnessed by additions to the dictionaries each year, a few radically redefined. But times like now have been rare, when one looks aghast at one’s interlocutor (how could I resist that word!) and wonders what they even mean when they use some words. Often, I do ask, and I have to admit, I am guilty of the accusation thrown at me – I do use the dictionary meaning of words. Apparently, these days, it is not enough.
Growing up in India, and then learning how to grow up in England, I was one of those ‘convent educated’ cocky management graduates who actually learnt the language well enough to be able to use it to establish entry credentials into most places. In England, I (as many others were too), was patronisingly praised for speaking English well. Duh, a bit oblivious of history, are you, to play that note? I’d normally respond by admitting, in the very English self deprecating manner I had learnt to adopt – “My English is not as good as it used to be in India, living in England has made it less accurate’. The reaction was always priceless, a quick pursed lip and a forced smile, as I smiled to myself in a certain satisfaction that we used to call ‘cheap thrills’ back in India. Each time I silently thanked that red grammar book, the Wren and Martin, ubiquitous in our school years across states in every convent school. I will freely admit, I never learnt the grammar of the language as I should have, but read voraciously, and so, survived. Grammar Nazis may well find faults even in this piece, go ahead, do, but what I am going to talk about is far worse, so hold your horses. (Wait, when did pedants earn the title ‘Nazi? Bit extreme, innit?)
I noticed it first with the word ‘communal’. In India, communal was an adjective used for the inevitable riots that broke out in my town at certain parts of the year. Communal was a word to be feared, for were communities not always in opposition to each other, ready to battle at the drop of some carrion or the raising of a flag? In England, in my peaceful corner, communal was the village green. The one with the cricket pavilion at one end, and the coffee shop at the other, where we mums would push our strollers, pause, roll out our blankets and picnic with our toddlers. The fire, blood and terror of the word ‘communal’ took years to melt away, to be replaced with a sense of shared rights, of civil exchange and giving way so that there is enough for all.
But what is happening today to words is worse, so bad that it is beyond scary. There are words that used to represent a certain meaning that are now distorted beyond recognition in the way that they are used. It used to be a a good, kind, if slightly woolly headed, well meaning person who was accepting of other people’s ways of living who would comfortably don the title of a liberal. Liberalism, even in casual conversation was broadly a good thing, a harmless and certainly a tolerant view of life that came with a certain superiority because it was an exercise in self control too. Even if i don’t like it, I’m respectful of others views, and in that I have used various good muscles. This good was recognised by others, and societies knew that they represented good and orderly ways of living, indeed, civilised ways of being because they were liberal. For the better read, liberalism (and the oft confused libertarian thought) came with its own literature and history. They used the term with greater precision, knowing that the very idea of a liberal embedded a paradox – for a liberal would never be able to take a strong stand for liberalism, they could only allow it to be, along with other liberals. To be bigoted about liberalism, or even to take a firm stand for it would be to destroy the very idea – and academic critics were quick to pounce on it. True liberals knew that they were validated in accepting and even upholding the paradox. To live it was to defend it with the utmost civility. Yet today, the word liberal is splashed about as an accusation. Young folk on the west coast of the US have not helped the word by their strong protests. Liberals, you live the paradox, you uphold civilisation by your acts of self control. You do not impose – and that is the obligation the title imposes upon you. For the word liberal to be used as a strong accusation in light of recent events may be fair, but it is not the word that has fallen off it’s meaning, it is the people who have fallen off the word. The word does not change its meaning just because some people who used it as a cover have now discarded it. The word ‘liberal’ still stands for what it always did. Liberals all over the world are still there, quietly bemused, holding on to their paradox, for they know that in a world where even paradoxes are allowed to have their place, we can all thrive.
Another such word is ‘secular’. With much history and baggage, much intrigue and manipulation, it was a word that even the founding fathers of the Indian constitution found tough to handle in their sensitive times. Yet, India grew to learn of its diversity and value it, even if for many it was a tolerance only for display, their insecurities growing like worms nesting in rotten cupboards. India’s Idea, they said was to foster diversity, for in diversity, as every portfolio manager knows, lies a certain management of risk. And yet we know of fallible men, and women, who seek to retain power, and for that they mangle all that is good, in service to their venal needs. The Idea of India is mocked now, and so too is the word ‘secular’. An ideal that we knew would be difficult, for again, it entails self control (by all), it calls upon one’s better self to consciously design a future that gives room to all to all to grow, it asks each of us to shift a bit and make room for others so that there is enough for all. And yet, when it was misused and manipulated for appeasement and electoral gain, it was not the word ‘secular’ that should have lost its meaning. It was the people who used it incorrectly who should have been knocked off their secular pedestals, for they did not deserve the goodness of the word anymore. The word remains as it was, a distant dream, a work in progress, a hope of a civilisation where we can share and grow. The shadows of greedy people that have fallen on it does not change the word, then why does it bear the blame? To shame the victim, to cast it aside is not an act of valour. It is the weak who abuse the word, and today, the word ‘secular’ too needs rescue to return to itself.
There is another word that is in danger, being pulled away from its original meaning and it is happening now, as we watch. This is the word ‘populist’. With the alt-right gaining ground, something gave way. The word alt-right is a neologism, a euphemism even, for what festered and grew out of the vestiges of the Nazi Fascist years in the twentieth century. When times were difficult, jobs and wages suffered, many people yearned for something better, something to hold on to, something to change. Anything. The hunger and the need did what it always does, allows our baser instincts to rise regardless of our better selves. Who can deny it, that the better self can survive only on a full belly and a safe neighbourhood. The higher self rises above it all, too distant when times are tough, and it is in these tough times that our lower instincts, common to us all, multiply. Become popular. The venal appeal to this, multiply our fears and thus become ‘populist’. The word then gets taken over to mean much more than it should. It is not the ‘populist’ approach to hurt others, it is something worse. Populism is about the many, and when people misuse populism to serve the few, then again, it is the word that is the victim. It is the word that is losing its identity and meaning in this game of distorted mirrors. A word that stood for light movies, pleasing songs and slightly risqué dances that expressed freedom is now seen to represent the voice of some other thing – it is a word that needs a rescue too. Before it is normalised, and the new normal becomes the face of the world we never wanted to create or become.
For surely we are better than a warp in the waylaid word.