Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of such quirky films as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation has written and directed a new one, called Synecdoche New York. The critics have helpfully provided a definition of “synecdoche”, which means “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.” The reviews have been almost as baffling as I suspect the movie must be. I think I’ll rent it; that way I can watch in small doses so as not to overly tax my mind, which is plenty baffled these days.
But the movie and its brainiac title got me thinking about vocabulary during this election season. Words – their meanings new, old and just plain baffling – are certainly getting their due. I decided to visit dictionary.com (http://dictionary.reference.com/) to look up a few of those that keep popping up in political speeches of late to see what the reference books think we mean:
- liberal: favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs. Also open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc; also and marked by generosity
- elite: the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons
- taxes: fees charged (“levied”) by a government on a product, income, or activity. The purpose of taxation is to finance government expenditure. One of the most important uses of taxes is to finance public goods and services.
- debate: a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints; a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers; to deliberate upon or consider; Obsolete: to fight; quarrel.
- socialism: any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
I admit I’ve used only a portion of the multiple definitions I found for each of these words in order to make them as “neutral” as possible. The more definitions we find, the more choices we have as to how we might feel about a particular word. As language evolves, words are sometimes given new meanings which may come to dominate or eliminate older definitions. Yet sometimes all it takes to give a neutral word a negative spin is to, say, substitute a partial meaning for a whole meaning or swap a general definition for a narrower one. Call it “Campaign Synecdoche 2008.”