Wednesday 5 June 2013

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Words and Their Meanings)

The word “radical” has an interesting history. It’s a term that, in the political sense, is the equivalent of “reform” or “reformist”. Hence when you say “radical reforms”, you’re indulging in a bit of pleonasm. However, whether you’re being redundant or not, “radical” is one of those words we need nowadays, especially to separate the wheat from the chaff at Westminster. Michael Gove’s educational reforms are not radical, whether they are a pleonasm or not, they’re stupid.

The reason why I have been musing over the term “radical” is that it’s one of those words whose meaning used to evoke images of someone advocating deep economic, political and social transformation. Very rarely did it refer to extremists, even if some radicals did make use of non-conventional, unorthodox methods to achieve their aims. I don’t mean to sound conservative (small “c”) or precious about language – English or Spanish, or both. Languages change, that’s what they do. They evolve over time. But sometimes I am puzzled as to how some terms lose some of their meaning.

Take the word “gay”, for instance. No longer does this word mean “having or showing a merry, lively mood”. No, it either means “homosexual”, or – and this is the coup de grâce – “lame, rubbish”. It was former Radio 1 DJ and misogynist-in-chief at the BBC, Chris Moyles, who made use of the latter meaning more often. Why? How do you go from being cheerful to being stupid? At the moment I am about to finish Jerusalem, a wonderful, doorstopper of a book about the history and culture of that beautiful city. One I would like to visit someday. The text is full of quotes and references to times and people gone by. Some of the passages talk about “gay this” and “gay that”, always conveying a sense of joy and happiness. It’s hard to read these sentences without feeling annoyed at the glib use of the word “gay” nowadays.

Of course, sometimes linguistic developments do have a deep social effect. In Cuba the equivalent of the word “millionaire” – “millonario” - was given a revamp after the triumph of the Revolution. It no longer meant a person who had millions stashed away in the bank, but someone who went the extra mile on the sugar cane field and whose labour resulted in "millions" of tonnes of Cuba's former main economic staple. The impact this change had on our collective psyche was that in a very short time we began to see farmers and other country folk in a different light and as a consequence accorded them more respect.

Back to the word “radical” and one of the ways it has been used recently is as an adjective to describe the actions of the two men who killed Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London a fortnight ago. Whilst I agree with the noun to which the word “radical” has been annexed, “fundamentalist”, I think it’s misleading to think that these two murderers had social, economic and political reforms in mind. To me a radical person is s/he who seeks a thorough reorganisation of society, the wo/man who wants to eliminate privilege and inequality. I am all for linguistic evolution and forward-thinking when it comes to languages. Sometimes, though, it is better to call a spade a spade. What those two men did in the streets of London was not radical. It was savage, cruel and inhuman.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th June at 10am (GMT)


  1. This was penned(or typed)with estimable good sense.

    I think often in the news items are geared up with words that are believed to conjure up fear & titillation. I don't think many authors of such news stories care what the words actually mean. They care about how much of a reaction they will get, & about how quickly they can catch, then keep, the "average" person's attention.

  2. Yep, the news just wants to give you the blues so you will keep watching. All about ratings and dough, so sadly things such as this will keep appearing.

  3. I am fascinated by the way language changes, but agree that the men who murdered Lee Rigby were not radical. Savages yes.
    Thank you for the gem about farmers in Cuba getting more (and richly deserved) respect with a change in language. Brilliant.

  4. I read this post yesterday, and as I was about to write a comment, I saw the series of articles by Zadie Smith and began reading them. Fascinating!
    Your blog is a treasure trove.

  5. Language changes in so many crazy ways. Here, for example, the word "liberal" has become very tainted. (That's in the U.S.) The word "socialist" also has become equivalent to something very dark and totalitarian. (I will be quick to add that I am not a socialist but that's in part because I don't feel I've thought through any economic theory enough to say that I am anything truly - I just don't know enough -)

    But you are right here. Agh. It is all so terrible. k.

  6. tu tema de hoy hace pensar y es cierto que muchas veces muchas palabras es un juego de ellas.
    feliz semana

  7. it is interesting the development of language and how that changes our terms of radicals i wonder who is doing the changing of changing radical to a more negative conotation a way of control...because then no one wants to be one...

  8. You're right - what they did was barbaric.

  9. i find it fascinating how language changed and still changes...maybe even quicker today than a few years ago..also how it mingles intercultural in a world that gets more and more connected..

  10. I'm not sure that I agree that a radical always strives for greater equality or other "good" things. I have always seen it as almost literal - going to the root, whatever that root might be. The murderers of this soldier are radical, to my mind. And stupid, evil and prejudiced.

    And I suppose that I should have yet another go at distinguishing between pleonasm and tautology...

  11. I agree...that is so cruel and barbaric.
    There should be a law against people making money from such news stories.
    It is disgraceful in my opinion.

  12. Languaje is something difficult and is true sometimes the same word means differents things and in English happens me sometimes I dont know how explain a feeling or other:)
    yes radical is not the same now. sometimes can be a terrible word:(

  13. Excellent post. Fascinating read, especially the Cuban Millionaire bit - and totally agree with your remarks on "gay". I also understand radical to mean thorough-going, as in radical surgery.

  14. Many thanks for your kind comments. Like that legendary philosopher, Chicken Joe, said in Surf's Up: "Radical!" :-)

    Greetings from London.



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