“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There-Lewis Carroll 1871
Alice’s encounter with the proud and doomed egghead philologist Humpty Dumpty, who is naturally sitting on a wall, is one of the most memorable scenes from her visit to the Looking Glass world. Humpty’s practise of assigning private meanings to words raises a whole series of puzzling and unsettling philosophical questions which have only gained in urgency over the last century with its ever greater linguistic and moral relativism.
Carroll, as a philosophical Nominalist (the belief that universal terms do not refer to objective existences, they are mere verbal utterances) and a writer of childrens nonsense books and comic poetry, affirms Humpty’s dictum that a word means just what you choose it to mean in his Symbolic Logic:
…I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book. “let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’, I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.
While private meaning is an acceptable, even a necessary principle in fiction and poetry, it is far more problematic in other areas. Surely politicians, journalists and judges, for example, are under a moral obligation to avoid weighting words with hidden meaning. Unfortunately many unscrupulous leaders has perverted language in this fashion and imposed the new meaning upon the people. One of the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes is the power of propaganda to re-define reality; black will indeed become white, a fall from the heights is actually glory. Another technique is of bland technocratic euphemism, making even genocide seem merely a matter of bureaucratic and administrative procedure.
As we drift rudderless in this post-factual, post-truth age with its unprecedented information overload and polarities, we would do well to do the exact opposite of Humpty (after all, he lives on the other side of the mirror), and remember that words are our master, otherwise communication will eventually become impossible.