Glory

peter-blake-and-to-show-you-im-not-proud-you-may-shake-hands-with-me[1]
Peter Blake-Alice through The Looking Glass 1972
“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.

73 thoughts on “Glory

  1. Excellent post. Assigning labels to someone or something does not automatically make it so. We do not get to decide. Choose words carefully, think before you speak. Seems to me that’s just common sense, something that has been tossed to the wind lately. Anyway, I will go ask Alice. She has kept her head amongst all the madness!

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    1. Alice always does. She has an unfavourable impression of Humpty, he is the most unsatisfactory character she meets in either Wonderland or through the looking glass. Only in fiction and poetry do we get to be masters of words like Humpty, in real life language is a social contract, past usage and meaning is everything. I cannot call the kettle an apple, I would never get a cup of tea made for me!

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      1. A social contract – I like that. It gives weight to the idea. I suppose if you really wanted a cup of tea, you could make it yourself… with your electric apple.

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  2. A well made point: our ‘leaders’ all too often usurp meaning in language thus undermining the foundations of our society. We have, it would appear, stumbled into the rabbit hole and into a world which lacks social conscience.

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    1. Thank you Chris. When in doubt I always Go Ask Alice, truly a book for the ages. As a writer of fiction and poetry I do reserve the right to assign personal meanings to words, but in my attempt at non fiction and opinion I attempt to aim and clarity and the general universally accepted term. Alas and alack our leaders have no such scruples and we are truly down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. Maybe social conscience is a worn down weakness? Let’s ask Humpty, he will tell us.

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    1. Quite true. I don’t object to meaning shifting and changing organically over a long period, it is rather the wilful perversion of language that I have a problem with. If we cannot agree on a general definition of a word and instead take it to mean something other, then communication will become impossible and we really are in trouble. Thank you

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  3. This is a fabulous post, Mr. Cake. What happens when language becomes gibberish, words have been diluted, misused and take on new meanings? When the ridiculous meets reality always defer to Alice. The use of Humpty Dumpty is brilliant. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes. I think you know of my deep and abiding love of the Alice books. So many questions are addressed, the nonsense reaches the heights of the sublime. The world is full of Humpty Dumpty’s but they should always remember that pride becomes before a fall.

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  4. Here in America, the abuse of language and thus the Orwellian state in which we find ourselves today, was started very simply by the statement of the impeached President William Clinton upon deposition, “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” Like the sound of a starter’s pistol, the race was on! (yes, the media, and so the people, ignore the shame and stigma that impeachment was meant to impose)

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    1. Yes, the whole episode with Humpty is very enlightening. Instead of words being his master he is the master of words. When he has a word that he works hard by being packed with extra, private meanings he pays them more. Alice is baffled and unimpressed by Humpty, she says to herself as she leaves that he is the most unsatisfactory person she met. He does, however explain the meaning of the nonsense poem Jabberwocky to her, as well as making a very grim, dark joke about Alice. Glad you enjoyed, yes I do believe that language is being made to work very hard, constantly corrupted and perverted lately.

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  5. Great post! No wonder Alice did not care for Humpty. And no wonder Humpty had his great fall 🙂

    You make a really good point about language: “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.”

    Drone Strike or Slaughterhouse Bloodbath? Hmmm…

    Orwellian Newspeak is nothing new — at least not here in the US. (We might cite Bill Clinton’s ‘never had sex with that woman…’ — which thus redefined the definition of ‘sex’ — but it actually started long before then.) Now it has taken on a life of its own with Legalese and other undecipherable languages posing as English. Plus censorship is getting bigger every day… And they have all sorts of ways they think they are baffling us further. It will not work.

    But anyway, it is always good to ask Alice, a voice of reason! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Christine… it is indeed nothing new. I admire your optimism, though I tend towards being a grumpy pessimist. However Alice is always pertinent and we should always be wary of the Humpty’s of the world with their illogical logic.

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  6. It will take generations to repair the damage the psychopath-in-chief has caused. On the one hand the abandonment of morality and truth has caused a upswing in fact-checking and countering every wrong word or statement uttered from the administration.There is vigilance and resistance like we’ve never seen. This bodes well, I believe. I think in the end, some gaping holes in the fabric of democracy will be repaired, but it will be a long and painful metamorphosis. As for Alice…thank goodness for her ability to question things. We should all stay alert…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Em… yes we should always stay alert, question others as well as questioning ourselves. We should choose our words with care, let them speak for themselves and never sight of their meaning. But not in poetry or fiction, though, that is a different matter all together.

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    1. Thank you Ms Dawn this is my point in a nutshell and more eloquently expressed my post. Words have meaning and they have consequences. Art is art and isn’t beholden to morality, but our speech and non fiction needs to acknowledge that words are our master.

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  7. Excellent. I have a faux-leather-bound copy of Lewis Carroll’s works, and of course my favorites are Alice’s two stories. I remember when Carroll said that language professors looked too deeply into the meaning of books. He said, most times authors meant nothing but nonsense while professionals were trying to see deep meanings in the work. I guess it’s the same with politics — although politicians should be much more careful, of course. Most particularly Mr. T. We shall not name names, but we shall admonish that some people are very crazy, and if you keep being an asshole certain things might happen. Anyway. 🙂

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    1. Hello Indigo I would be honoured with a re-post of either Glory or More Illustrated Alice. Thank you for the tip re Charles Blackman and Donna Leslie. Glory is one of my favourite posts (I have a lot of favourites though), Alice always guides me well, she is shrewd and an excellent judge of character, and beneath the facade are surprising depths. I am not quite sure what #SoSS but I trust it will be delightful. Thank you and Happy New Year!

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  8. This went off in a different direction than I was expecting. There is a direct connotation between the fairy tale (Humpty Dumpty) and America in it’s relationship to the rest of the world. The comments were also very interesting. Thank you for link!

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