The Meaning of Words

The Meaning of Words

Denis de Rougemont 


. . . Now what do we see today? “Liberty,” “order,” “spirit,” “democracy” assume any kind of meaning one likes—and people are killing one another for these words. It would seem that they fight for them the more passionately the less clearly they realize their significance.

        I have said that true order presupposes the liberty of responsible man. But how many frightened bourgeois have obstinately regarded Hitler, that man of the masses, as the “rampart” of their order against bolshevism? Others fought in the name of their liberty against a tyrant who conducted his war in the name of the liberty of the German people. The autocrat in boots proclaimed himself one day the only “true” democrat. But the other dictator rose against him in the name of “true” democracy, that of the Soviets, allying himself on the other hand with certain nations which call themselves very sincerely democracies, but which he regards as plutocracies.

        Must we conclude that men kill one another through misunderstandings? Or that words no longer mean anything? Are there behind these words simple realities which are tyranny on the one hand, and on the other liberty? But then tell me what is liberty for you? You hesitate, it is complicated, and the more you think about it, the more the meaning of the word appears problematical to you. Yet you will risk your lives, willy-nilly, to preserve this liberty, and this is very good. But it would be even better if the word had a meaning which one could declare without hesitating, if each one of you knew what he is defending. (For to get killed proves nothing: our enemies also are getting killed.) Words can be effective only if they have definite meaning. And what defines the meaning of a word is its undeniable correspondence with certain things, certain feelings, the fact that it necessarily pledges acts. Now this correspondence ceases to be arbitrary only by virtue of a unanimous agreement, which is to say that it can be brought about only in the midst of a living group or community. A common tradition, law, faith, and authority alone are capable of defining the meaning of what we call current words. But all these things have disappeared in our century. Then the words that circulate everywhere lead nowhere. Our language is out of gear. The more we speak the less we understand one another. Death alone can put everyone into agreement.

            The 20th century will appear in the future as a kind of verbal nightmare, of delirious cacophony: people spoke more than they had ever spoken (imagine those radio stations which can no longer be silent day or night, where words are delivered at so much per minute, whether or not there are listeners, whether or not there are things to say), a time when words wore out faster than in any century of History, a time of prostitution of language, which was to be the measure of the true, and of which the Gospel says that at its source it is “the life and the light of men!”

            Alas, what have we done with language! No longer able even to lie in certain mouths, language has fallen lower than the lie, I mean into insignificance. How the Devil rejoices over the pleasant or excited chatter of the radio-speakers! He, the great confusionist, who likes nothing better than flattering equivocation, the drone of official style, the senile incontinence of after-dinner verbiage. He, the romantic, who, when we are stupefied by speeches, suggests to us that the inexpressible is perhaps truer than clear, sharp speech! He knows that by confusing our language he destroys the sense of community. He knows that by destroying our social structures he precipitates the confusion of our language. He knows that men can pledge themselves only by clear, sharp words and that by twisting and debasing the meaning of words he destroys the very basis of our loyalties. He knows that wherever a spade is called a spade, evil recedes and loses something of its prestige; this is why he has invented the language of diplomats and its insane coyness. He knows that nothing in the world can make us be silent, now that we have the radio, and he takes up his post in all the microphones. He finally organizes that verbal inflation, words no longer being “covered” by acts, which he hopes, not without reason, will complete, more effectively than the worst tyrannies, the utter confusion of our moral sense . . .

            I was about to write that the only remedy would be to combat him with semantics, which is the science of meanings, of precise and shaded language, guaranteed by a long tradition and by etymologies. A Ministry of the Meaning of Words, endowed with discretionary powers—this is what a Democracy needs—since after all it is a regime entirely founded on words. (This ministry was formerly the Church. An analysis of our vocabularies would show that the little common sense which they preserve comes from biblical and liturgical reminiscences.)

            I might indicate twenty remedies of this kind but I know too well that they will be without virtue in the amorphous and gigantic world in which we live. Moreover I am not writing these pages in order to propose my own reforms on top of a thousand others. The evil is too deep-seated, the despair too real, men are too busy destroying one another. Words are precisely too elusive for advice to be heeded.

            But here indestructible confidence rises through our babble and reestablishes the worshipful silence: we have no power to destroy the word! All the Devil’s lies and all our chatter vanish the moment the Spirit speaks to us, through a phrase of the Bible or of our liturgies, through a word spoken by a passerby, through a prayer born in the heart. It does not depend on us to make these syllables live: suddenly they have spoken to us. (The birth of a poem or of the rhythm of a sentence, somewhere in ourselves, gives us a feeble idea of these surprises.) If language belonged to us we would long ago have ceased to be able to understand one another. But if two beings communicate, if certain words suddenly put me into motion, if a given accent suffices to give me back my strength, by this miracle language is restored to its original and creative power.  A tyrant or the State may well be able to forbid our speeches and our discussions, to “choke free speech” (at the point it has reached, this would be no great evil), but they will be powerless over the mystery which at certain moments causes certain words rather than others to speak to us, be it even in a whisper, in the depth of a prison cell. They may reduce to silence the chatterers and the great orators, replace them with official disks; they may burn all the books; they may shoot the prophets—they were indeed able to crucify the Word! They will never be able to go further.

            For here it is Easter, and the Word has forever arisen; and in the confusion of languages and of lies, when fear, suffering and shame no longer permit us to articulate even an intelligible murmur—it is the Word itself which now speaks to us!


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