Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nature and the English Language

The legendary Pizza Rat

Not too long ago I cobbled together a comic strip based on a couple of conversations I had at different times with different people. It's true that during one of these chats I uttered the word "bitches" rather glibly—but I think in the actual conversation I wasn't maligning any actual persons as "bitches," but rather referring to the "first you write the novel, then you get the bitches" lie that set me on the lonely, misty path I walk. And then we did volley some ideas back and forth about what "bitches" signifies, how its meaning and semiotic timbre change depending on who's saying it (and to whom), and how the singular "bitch" differs from the plural "bitches," etc.

Old news: language is labile. The definition of a word determines the circumstances of its use; over time, the idiosyncrasies of its use alter its definition. And "definition" is, well, difficult to define. Without getting into the "which came first, the word or the abstraction?" conundrum, let's just say that by "definition" we mean the physical object, quality, action, or relation, abstracted, that a word represents. ("Stone" isn't any particular object; it's the bundle of qualities common to the things we point to and say "stones.") A word's relative location in the involute webs of the lexicon can potentially have as much bearing on its meaning as Merriam-Webster's indexed blurbs. Just as we can better understand a person by the company they keep, we can clarify the meaning of a word by examining the words related to it.

The relatedness of words has as much to do with synonymity and etymology as with unconscious exercises of association on the part of speakers, and these linkages don't necessarily have anything to do with linguistics, per se. This most often seems to be the case when a word's referent is something that's neither tangible or visible, and also assumed to be ubiquitous, or fundamental in some way.

"Capitalism" is a good example. If you play a word association game with a liberal and pitch her "capitalism," her answer will probably be "greed," even though that isn't what capitalism is. Play the same game with a conservative, and his answer will be more likely be along the lines of "free enterprise"—which is hardly any closer to what the word "capitalism" actually means. Unless our partisans both dabble in political science or economics, any personal definitions of "capitalism" they submit will be reiterations of their first answers, elaborated into "greed system" and "enterprise system."

"Freedom" is a word whose meaning in most contexts is colored entirely by its associations and piled depositions of emotional content. It is employed so frequently and exclusively as a blunt rhetorical object that it's been pounded out of whatever shape it once possessed. Its closest synonyms are "we're number one" and "WHOO." As far as I'm concerned, the word is a lost cause. Approach somebody who habitually uses it in conversation or on Facebook. Ask them: "Freedom to do what and at whose expense?" Or propose: "if you grant that our actions are directly influenced by our genes and environment by any margin greater than 0%, it has to follow that nothing we do or think is not in some way determined by circumstances beyond our control, and so freedom is more likely a subjective feeling and not an ontological attribute."

The ensuing discussions will not be productive. But "freedom" is as locked into our discourse as MIDI is into our music, and so our ideologues and political leaders continue to harp on "freedom" as though it were something real, something quantifiable, when in actuality its has transcended all practical meaning and become an amorphous, religiously charged cultural totem.

We sure could use a man like David Rees again.

The word "nature" is afflicted much in the same way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sometimes I still draw things.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I threw together a comic for the first time in several moons. It felt pretty good drawing again, but I wish these things didn't take so long to make.


Huh. This is comic #81 on Comics Over Easy. Nineteen more and I'll have some sort of meaningless milestone to celebrate. (Tigt's guest comic is #68, but whatever. I'm perfectly comfortable secretly counting that awful Ponycomic as two strips so I don't have to wait until #101 to halfheartedly pat myself on the back.)