… What they did (which was to set accepted meanings continually at defiance) we will in our turn to.
This is from the essay ‘Catchwords and Claptrap’ by Rose Macaulay found in The Hogarth Essays (1928):
… This fantastical currency, minted by the requirements of human thought and feeling, circulated by the urgent desire we have to convey these somehow to our fellows, so precisely, so delicately wrought and cast into exact and minute forms, so skillfully adapted to the commerce which is its purpose, and, having been so shaped, shaping in its turn thought itself, stamping it ever freshly with intricate designs — except that nothing in this curious world can well be selected and labeled as odd, it might seem odd that such a currency should have been coined by our simian race.
But what is not by any means odd is that, having contrived for each feeling, each thought, each fact, its appropriate symbol, beautifully neat and fit, so that we may enjoy ready commerce of ideas, we should proceed, in the perversity of our human nature, to confuse the coins together, using one where another should serve. We prefer, as often as not, to express what we mean in phraseology which means precisely something else.
[line break added] It is, possibly, a revolt against the dominance of established usage, a triumphant assertion that man is lord of language, not language of man, a surging up of the eggish pride which said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” It is yet one more expression of the free spirit of man striving perpetually against a universe which seeks to enthrall him — a triumphant gesture of anarchy.
[line break added] Yet, because prolonged anarchy is impossible to man’s law-bound nature, as to that of the universe which bore him, each attempt at it defeats itself, each new sense given to a word or phrase becomes stereotyped, becomes rapidly, not an individual, but a herd sense, the users giving countenance and encouragement one to the other. What the coins originally stood for we forget; we fling them loosely about, sometimes with misapprehension or deliberate misapplication, sometimes merely with a vague feeling that here are words, let them somehow convey our meaning.
[ … ]
… In the darkened confusion of their minds they cry “murder” when there is no question of any taking of life, meaning (one supposes) that here is something they think cruel and hard, that murder is cruel and hard, and that therefore this thing must be murder. It is an elementary fallacy, which a first course in logic would make impossible.
And this leads to the question of words and their halos. In such minds, excited, untrained, and confused, words seem to be rather symbols of some vague body of associations than the precise outward shapes of definite and clear-cut meanings; phrases rush into the mind haloed with pathos, tragedy, vice, or what not.
[ … ]
… The human desire to magnify; the human instinct of evasion; the more obscure human preference for conveying meaning tactically, by a halo of vague associations, rather than by a precise statement; the desire to convey atmosphere by the hypnotism of phrases; the tendency to think evil; and ordinary unlettered human ignorance. And beyond all these, there is the heady human arrogance which makes us determine that words shall be our servants, not our masters, and causes us to dig as wide a gulf as may be between the meanings given them by our ancestors and those we have decided that they shall bear.
[line break added] After all, if you come to that, who were our ancestors that they should have the ordering of our speech? What they did (which was to set accepted meanings continually at defiance) we will in our turn to. Do dictionaries say that a word bears one meaning? We will cause it to bear another. It is, after all, our creature.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.