The meaning of words

David Brooks writes a column in the New York Times today about a Google database of books published since 1500 which can be used to tot up word usage. He notes that words such as virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery, fortitude, faith, wisdom, and evil have been used with declining frequency since 1930.  He further notes that words such as preferences, self, unique, and many political words, such as economic justice, priorities, right-wing, and left wing have become more frequent.  He facilely concludes from these lists that “…as [society] has become more individualistic it has also become less morally aware.”

This data set is not, in itself, informative. It is all in the interpretation, and  I would reach different conclusions.

Who defines such words as virtue, faith, decency, and evil?  After family, the first place that comes to mind is church; the second is political speeches. Recent studies have suggested that Americans have lost a measure of faith in both the church and the government, and we have refashioned the family. We are no longer sheep who flock to war when our government hails patriotism. A considerable segment of the American populace no longer reviles homosexuals or Jews because our churches tell us to. Many of us have noticed that formerly revered institutions like the church and the government are as likely to mislead as to lead, as likely to promote chaos as order. Somehow, we have claimed the confidence to think for ourselves, to construct our own conscience and behavioral guidelines, and in so doing, we have dropped definitions tailor-made by others.  Many of us like and defend our gay cousins and our Jewish sisters-in-law, our Muslim neighbors, and our disabled classmates. We dare to set up companies functioning in new paradigms, marry whomever we please, and think new thoughts. In 1930, when Brooks’s favored set of words reigned, our behavior and even our thinking patterns were dictated by others.

Mr. Brooks is right about one thing — “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Mr. Brooks reviles the shifts that he detects, and I embrace the shifts that I detect.  In academia, a battle of statistics, studies, and papers would ensue, but, according to my paradigm, it’s up to each of us to decide for him or herself what it all means.

You are, of course, invited to disagree…..

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