The Decongestion of Language

So let us consider the decongestion of language. Not just unpacking words, or deconstructing words, but unburdening them, stripping away years of socialization and politics and associations. We speak in a language that has evolved considerably, where simple expressions no longer have their source meaning, but layers and layers of derivations and constructions placed upon them, like an old car gathering dust over years and years and then rediscovered. It looks nothing like its design.

Some of the themes engaged here are etymology, and semantic drift. Etymology of course is the origin of the word – so the word ‘health’ comes from the old English haelth, meaning well, or whole, for example. Semantic drift occurs where the meaning of a word will change over time. For example, the word ‘silly’ initially meant ‘blessed’ (see McWhorter). There’s nothing wrong with words meaning something different today than in the past, so long as we agree on their meaning, either as words in themselves, or in context. For example, the word wicked (from the old English wicca, meaning witchcraft) has at least two meanings today; if an older school mistress suggests that ‘the boy who stole the money was wicked,’ it means he was bad. If that boy told his friend that ‘the new Playstation Game is wicked,’ it means that it’s good.

Words also acquire associations and baggage, that can be hard to shake, and render previous interpretations redundant in the modern context. Holocaust, for example, is almost exclusively reserved for the crimes of the Nazis during the Second World War, and more often than not for the specific actions in relation to the Jews in Europe. Prior to World War II the world was little used outside of classical and theological circles, referring to a completely burned offering to the Gods, generally an animal sacrifice. It comes from the Greek holokaustos, holo meaning ‘complete’ or ‘whole’, and kaustos, or burnt. John Milton used the word in Samson Agonistes in 1671, and in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries it began to be used to refer to various massacres and atrocities, such as the Armenian genocide. It can hardly be used now to refer to anything other that the Nazi atrocities, and certainly its animal sacrifice origins have been eliminated.

Reading old books, however, can be difficult given the changes that happen in language. Nietzsche’s The Antichrist is an immediately provocative title to the modern reader, and indeed in 1895 when it was published it would have been similarly jarring to see that as the title to a book. For various complicated reasons Nietzsche became associated with Nazi ideology in the Twentieth Century, and is often seen as a cold, violent, and even racist war-monger. Having published a book with such a provocative title put the tin hat on superficial analysis of Nietzsche amidst the Judeo-Christian intelligentsia of mid-twentieth century Western culture: Nietzsche was a bad man.

The problems begin however with the translation. Its German title Der Antichrist could be translated as The Antichrist, or equally as The Anti-Christian (see Kaufmann). One translation refers to Satan himself, in the Christian tradition, while the other refers to a far less threatening image of the sceptical academic. Admittedly, Nietzsche seems to have revelled in the provocative, and would have appreciated the shock value of the looser translation; still, the actual content of the book reveals only a critique of Christianity and its structures. There are in fact many good things that Nietzsche has to say about Christ / Jesus himself.

Even the word antichristian, derived from Antichrist and first emerging in the 1530s, is less severe than the absolute and terrifying Antichrist, usually capitalized. As that word has onboarded its modern sense, Grammarist defines that journey as having ‘expanded in meaning to simply mean someone who is overwhelmingly evil or someone who is a powerful enemy capable of one’s destruction.’ This of course fits neatly with the wholly unreasonable picture of Nietzsche as having been one of Hitler’s Philosophers (see Sherratt). The absolutism and dogma of the righteous Christian ascendency permitted little deviation from established orthodoxy when it came to spiritual matters; you could obey and align with the church, or you could reject and turn your back on the church, but to criticise it openly was to do injury to the body politic, no less. And so it suited Nietzsche to be uproarious (I am dynamite!) and controversial, and it suited the church and the prevailing powers to pigeon hole his ideas as evil and indecent. In going back to Nietzsche, we need to wipe away those associations, unblock the etymological heritage, and return to the less controversial subject matter – an assessment of the interpretations of the early church of the life of Jesus – that in truth the book develops.

Beyond Nietzsche, this decongestion needs to go on, if we are to learn from old books. And I guess we should consider the impact of words on future generations as we string them together. Perhaps too our AI machines need to consider as they structure their natural language models how meaning changes over time, so that they might better help our understanding, and interpretation, of old ideas.

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