The meaning of a word can seem like a straightforward thing, but a word is in fact a battleground on which opposing ideologies clash, with the status and reputation of various groups—women, racial groups, social classes—at stake. The powers that be try to use the leverage their control of mass media, the government and the law to naturalize their contested interpretation, and enshrine the definition of a word that suits their ends in its commonsense usage. If we stop questioning the meaning of a word, we have lost the fight against tyranny and prejudice, and we have begun to accept the unjust status quo as a given, unalterable thing.
That premise, a hallmark of postmodernist theories that hold reality to be primarily constructed by language use, is the basis for English professor Stephanie A. Smith’s study of six individual words coined in America and, in her estimation, redolent of currents in American history: bloomers, sucker, bombshell, scab, nigger, and cyber. She devotes a chapter to each one, which would lead you to expect a study of how the word’s use has changed over time. This is not what Smith provides—the word-per-chapter veneer covers what is really an exercise in applied Lacanian theory and an extended defense of a scholar’s obligation to be incomprehensible. Presumably someone felt this material would be more marketable disguised as cultural histories of provocative words, but in fact one of Smith’s chief points is such tidy histories provide false impressions and reinforce received wisdom about race, class and gender.
Ideally, by focusing on something so specific as a single word, Smith would garner a framework which could help make the diffuse and complex history of gender and race relations more accessible and comprehensible. The chapter on bloomers, the closest to such an archeology, for instance, traces that word from the mid-19th century, when Amelia Jenks Bloomer first promoted women’s wearing pants to the mid-20th century, when it described children’s underwear. Bloomers allows Smith to schematize the history of dress reform and parallel it with female emancipation movements, providing a pointed recapitulation of how each wave of American feminism has been successfully trivialized. Though she must occasionally loop back to defend her methodology and argue for the word’s agency in affecting the history its changing meaning merely recorded, the chapter nonetheless affords readers a tangible way of conceptualizing how feminism is resisted at the level of word usage.
Other chapters, however, tend to focus on the words as rhetorical figures, with Smith divorcing them from history and studying them in light of psychoanalytic linguistic theory. They suffer from the lack of a cogent framework that a focus on the word’s evolution might have provided. The chapter on bombshell focuses mainly on Marilyn Monroe, and how she serves as an emblem of the way culture defuses the radical potential of sexuality, making it seem frivolous. The scab chapter delves with seeming arbitrariness into an analysis of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, leaving behind the history of strikebreaking labor, and the nigger chapter is less about that explosive word than it is about capitalist schemes to discipline the industrial workforce. The chapter on sucker is largely a discussion of vampirism as metaphor, which yields a handful of related but not fully integrated points about the need for an inaccessible language to preserve cultural difference. Smith argues that simplifying things so that they can be readily understood by a larger audience ultimately “impoverishes” the world.
Her own text seems to take that as a creed. Though the blurb copy suggests a William Safire-like project of etymology that might be interesting to anyone who’s curious, Household Words is written solely for academic consumption, so general readers may be put off by some of the conventions of such writing: the constant interpolations of intention (“I will argue…”), the off-hand references to theorists as though they were magic talismans of authority, the foregrounding of methodological beefs (in this case, Smith’s rejection of fact-finding “positivism” in favor of interpretive speculation), and the at times mystifying concatenation of abstractions that pile up in such sentences as this one: “In this chapter I will show how the frequent demand (both popular and critical) for the ‘common sense’ of unambiguous, unconflicted, and inescapable decipherability regenerated, during the late 1990s, a residual positivism bound to and by a violent, coercive phenomenal real.”
Academics don’t necessarily write that way by choice; they are forced to qualify and hedge to protect themselves from subsequent attack by peers, and they must enact their authority at the sentence level in vocabulary and jargon because these demonstrate familiarity and mastery of the concepts that frame disciplines such as literature. But to a general reader, who has nothing invested in seeing the walls around the ivory tower policed, such displays of intellectual legitimacy can seem obfuscatory and become a bit wearying. Though Smith is clearly sincere about wanting to reveal the dangers inherent in common sense, the posturing that academic discourse demands distorts that sincerity and makes it seem as though she’s lost all sense of perspective. Surely she knows that a radical reinterpretation of Dreiser or Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon is not going to take the sting out of being called nigger or scab. And the poor souls trapped by their common sense aren’t going to be liberated by a Lacanian take on Dracula. The disparity between Smith’s diagnosis of the problem, which is plausible enough, and her efforts to redress it is so stark that it seems to cloud what she really would like the book to accomplish. Unfortunately, as with many scholarly monographs, the most palpable thing at stake in the book sometimes seems to be the author’s own reputation with other academics.
Smith argues that her language militates against oppressive requirements that her explanations kowtow to common sense, as one of her chief points is that the notion of common sense is used to silence dissent. “To demand a commonsense language so ‘accessible’ as to be stripped of ambiguity, so ‘common’ as to be universally understood, so ‘intimate’ as to be transparent appeals to the most disabling form of universalism—one that denies the sociopolitical history of conflict in America.” Of course a well-honed discourse is necessary to make complex points, but here she comes close to inadvertently echoing the “esoteric language” theory of Leo Strauss championed by neoconservatives, which holds that the discourse of elites must be conducted in language ordinary people cannot comprehend, to protect them from misunderstanding and protesting against what is really for their own good. The argument also resembles the Scientologists’ belief that their dense thicket of neologisms helps adherents combat the entrenched mechanisms of our self-defeating “reactive minds.” In other words, this position implies a top-down politics that eschews the need for consensus building and organizing. Rather than articulate what is at stake in a way that anyone can appreciate, Smith seems to be saying that she plans to argue over the heads of the very people whose rights and liberties she seeks to enhance and respect. It’s an odd way to show solidarity, to say the least, as it is at odds with her obviously well-meant intentions.
Though the history of a word’s meaning certainly preserves a great deal of social history, it does not follow that one can affect the future merely by policing language use. Smith claims that “the historicity of a single word is rife with importance”—fair enough—but also that “the act of ‘reading’ is, as it should be, full of possibility.” In making this declaration she is not echoing a LeVar Burton-esque celebration of the wonderful imaginative possibilities on the far side of the Reading Rainbow. She is instead laying out a politics grounded first and foremost in protecting free speech. Consider this thundering, apocalyptic pronouncement: “If meaning is not free and open to debate, that is, if meaning is frozen in an always predictable legibility—one meaning fits all—then truth itself will vanish into a lie so overarching and profound that it will have the power to destroy everything a democracy and a democratic culture should cherish and protect: the right to dissent, the search for truth, the need for justice, the freedom to be.” Apparently being itself hangs in the balance, so you best purchase this book before you disappear into an ontological vacuum.
Of course, free speech is important to a thriving democratic culture. But the further implication of Smith’s critique—that political action starts with a commitment to liberate our vocabulary—is much more suspect. A populace that is more willing to tolerate ambiguity and question their own reactionary commonsense opinions would be a great thing, but to make your case for that willfully obscure, and to bind it to a defense of gnomic academic writing, seems only to invite further intolerance and accusations of elitism.