“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— Lewis Carroll
“Offending and being offended are now the twin addictions of our society.”
— Martin Amis
I used to think, mistakenly, that political correctness/speech-control could surely go no further, that it would exhaust itself with its own absurdity and someday ebb. Some time ago, I realized that it is a self-perpetuating industry. We will never be diverse or correct enough.
Language controls thought and action
Today you cannot even harbor a racist thought, as evidenced by the ongoing subjective offenses, the latest example of which I discuss below. It’s far more than an ugly expression of anger. The attempted purging of language leads to a purging of thought – and action. First, you control what people can say. Then you can control the way they think and behave.
On the current list of forced obsolescence is Rhode Island’s full title, which includes the word plantation.
The colony’s founder, Roger Williams, was my kind of guy. Per Wikipedia, he was a staunch advocate for religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fair dealings with American Indians, and he was one of the first abolitionists.
The full name of the new entity, as I knew from going to college there, was:”Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”
Why “Plantations”? According to Wikipedia, Williams is the source. The new colony was ‘[t]he Southern Gateway of New England: This historical nickname was bestowed because Rhode Island was the most southerly of the New England states with harbors suitable for ocean-going ships.”
This seems kind of fishy (no pun intended). I can’t see what any of that has to do with “plantation.”
What it really meant
So I checked the older meanings of the word, with The Oxford English Dictionary, a huge compendium of the vocabulary of English, including obsolete words and meanings; the dictionary traces the history of each meaning with historical citations. The original version comprised over 20 volumes.
The word plantation has several obsolete meanings:
(i) ‘The act of founding or establishing anything…’ (first citation 1586)
(ii) ‘A settlement in a new or conquered country; a colony.’ (1614)
(iii) ‘A company of settlers or colonists’ (1647)
So…nothing to do with Southern plantations or slavery. Williams could have meant it in any of the above ways; they were in use before he founded the colony.
I lived in RI for four years and paid no attention to “plantations.” But now it has to go:
Cancel culture changes rules of meaning
The cancel culture, of course, applies to language, where, as elsewhere, it practices enlightenment by elimination.
Suddenly there’s a multitude of carefully-indoctrinated young people, the product of universities where at least 90% of the faculty describe themselves as liberal (think gender studies, affirmative action, diversity, inclusion, safe spaces, trigger words, micro-aggressions, alternate sets of pronouns, contempt for Western culture, narratives of white privilege, guilt and oppression, and never-ending, constantly-escalating grievances).
And these people, along with many others of the same persuasion, have upended the principles of inferring meaning. Before the propagandist gets hold of it, meaning is the product of mutually-cooperative intention and perception.
The cooperative principle is gone. There is now one over-riding rule: the meaning of a term is what we say it is, and anything that CAN be construed as being associated with America’s history of slavery and racism must be eliminated, regardless of the original intent.
In the case of Rhode Island, the offense is 100% in the mind of the offended, and that is not good. We cannot allow people to be Humpty-Dumpty and tell us what words mean or imply.
Stand up to the cancel culture
The governor should go on TV and tell people to get over themselves. “Plantations” never had anything to do with slavery. Roger Williams opposed slavery. Case closed.
But it isn’t. The language persecution will never end.
Garrison Keillor reports (in his 7/29/20 column, published in the New Hampshire Union Leader) that the MacDowell Colony, a group of artists just ten miles from me in Peterborough NH, is dropping the word colony from its title because, in Keillor’s words, “it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy.” Now we’ve gone even farther, beyond the negative connotations of slavery or forced-labor plantations…to include any imagined, perceived, or simply manufactured connections.
No dictionary definition of colony mentions exclusivity or hierarchy, MacDowell is an ARTISTS colony! The door is apparently now open to wholesale replacement of any word that might offend anybody.
I used to live on Colony Drive on Grosse Ile, MI. Colony must appear in hundreds, if not thousands of names of organizations and places. Changing them all would be an onerous, pointless project that, regrettably, takes time, energy, and resources away from the real problems we face.
Hello? Anybody home?
So I ask again: where are the people best qualified to speak on this subject? I mean: other linguists. People who can see these language abuses for what they are: instruments of hatred and division.
I won’t call them out by name, except two: John McWhorter, who has significant media exposure but prefers relatively innocuous topics (he did give a good critique of Trump’s speech); and the Great One himself, Noam Chomsky, one of the country’s leading intellectuals and A LINGUIST, who can go on for hours about how evil America is but doesn’t have time to go on TV and denounce the destructive ways in which language is being used.
I always have the same answer: they’re quiet because they’re comfortably tenured in the very institutions that program students with this malicious and intellectually bankrupt bullshit. Does any of you have a spine? Or is politically-correct language control OK with you?