The Search for Meaning: When the Old Words Won’t Do

Cincinnati NoondayUncategorized1149 Comments

When Barack Obama won the 2008 election, I remember Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of The View said on that program, that as a black woman, she finally felt like she could “finally put [her] bags down.” Of course this comment garnered her the usual faux outrage from the blowhards on right-wing radio and FoxNews. She attempted to clarify her words to Sean Hannity, who thought that his experience as the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants was akin to her experience as an African American woman. He insisted that if his grandparents had prospered in a country where they had arrived unwanted, then she was being unfair to make this statement. That somehow these rather benign words, indicating that she finally had affirmation that she belonged in her own country, that she wasn’t an inconvenient interloper, that his electoral victory made her feel more at home than she had ever felt, somehow allied her with Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who had proclaimed “No, not God bless America; God damn America,” in a sermon about the legacy of racism in the United States.

I was not incensed by Goldberg’s words. I wasn’t even outraged by Rev. Wright’s words. I cringed when I heard them the first time, not because I found them offensive, or even untrue—but because I knew that they would be used to weaponize White America’s fear of the Angry Black Man.

I repeated Whoopi’s remark a lot that post-election week. It resonated with me. That feeling of waiting for something to make you feel like you’re in the right place was something that felt familiar. I thought about when I had felt like I could “finally put my bags down” in my life. When I felt unwelcomed, if not unwanted, an imposter, or at the very least, a visitor. I thought about the words of W.E..B. DuBois, in The Souls of Black Folk, who wrote:

The Negro is a sort of Seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

I thought Whoopi’s words reached back to DuBois, writing in 1903, and said, hang on, Dr. DuBois. It’s coming.

I thought about Ms. Golberg’s words, and Dr. DuBois’s again on November 9, after Donald John Trump had secured enough electoral votes to be declared the 45th president of the United States. I thought about a conversation I had had with a student in 2004, after Barack Obama’s electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention. He agreed but assured me that this country would never elect a black man president. I told him it will elect a black man before it elects a white woman.

But mostly I thought about Trump’s words. His now infamous but apparently acceptable “locker room banter”: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. Anything.” “The pussy.” “Grab them by the pussy.” Not even, “grab her pussy.” “The pussy.” Up for grabs. Pubic region as public property. Not even her own vagina is hers.

Instead of setting my bags down, I felt an intense need to pack them up.

Merriam-Webster reports that the most searched definition in 2016, excepting the perennial heavy-hitters that send us to the dictionary, like “democracy” or “paradigm,” was “surreal.” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of Merriam Webster explains that when the events of 2016 sent us to the dictionary to articulate our feelings, “surreal,” the adjective meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream” was where we landed. Searches for “surreal” spiked after the death of music icon Prince died, after the terror attacks in Brussels and on Bastille Day in Nice. Apparently, it is a popular word to look up after catastrophe: there were tremendous spikes after 9/11 and the Sandy Hook Massacre. The largest onslaught of searchers, though, came on November 9th, though it was not the most searched word the day after the election. That award goes to “fascism.” Happy times. It seems that our fellow citizens might have been experiencing the same kind of buyers’ remorse as our English friends did when their most popular internet search the day after the Brexit referendum was “What is the EU?”

There are a number of organizations that recognize the “Word of the Year,” (or WotY) and though my first-year students seem to believe that Webster’s is the highest authority of semantic and denotative meaning, as evidenced by their introductions, I believe the gold standard for the Word of the Year is the American Dialect Society, which has been declaring a WotY winner since 1990, the longest-running and the only one not associated with a profit-seeking entity, as they proudly point out on their website. Their metrics for determining the winner have changed over the quarter century they have been assigning annual lexical influence, but they rely on popular input for nominations and the professional opinion of . Whereas Webster wants to know what word sent us to the dictionary to understand our times, ADS seeks to capture the word we’re already using to describe the world. Their winner for 2016 was just announced yesterday, Friday, January 6. The Word of the Year for 2016 according to the American Dialect Society is “dumpster fire.”

Ben Zimmer, the chairman of the society’s new words committee, said in a statement that “As 2016 unfolded, many people latched on to dumpster fire as a colorful, evocative expression to verbalize their feelings that the year was shaping up to be a catastrophic one. In pessimistic times, ‘dumpster fire’ served as a darkly humorous summation of how many viewed the year’s events.” And yes, Zimmer and his colleagues at the ADS acknowledge that the Word of the Year is two words, but it is considered a “vocabulary item,” but it “best represent[s] the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year.”

Buzzfeed listicles (and the word program I’m typing this on doesn’t recognize the word “listicle” ) of the top 17 words you need to be using right now

Godwin’s law—or rule—even that term is debatable apparently, that the longer an internet discussion goes on, the likelihood that one rhetor will call another rhetor a Nazi approaches zero.

These are the times we live in, when the lexis we have used to render our experience, to share our ideas, is exponentially fraught. That meanings, and connotations, and the words’ mis-meanings and dialectical errors, and their attendant euphemisms—are all so tangled and embrocated with difficulty, frustration, even danger.

What does it mean to quantify our curiosity, or our existential dilemmas, or our darker, morbid thoughts? When you slake your burning itch to know, do you consider the big-data scrapers, collecting your keystrokes and your clicks, assigning significance to what was really just a passing thought? (And don’t you just hate rhetorical questions?) Because they do. Data promises to answer the age-old queries of the meaning of life, of what do women want, of what is my dog thinking. Or at least our struggle to know these things.

So I want to talk about 2016’s “Word of the Year,” and the American Dialect Society’s 2005 word of the year, and what comes between and what we know and don’t know and what we say and won’t say and what we say when we can’t say what we want to say.

On the debut episode of his Comedy Central political satire program The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert introduced audiences to not only what was to become a regular, recurring segment on the show, “The Word,” he gave us, or at least popularized for us, the word “truthiness.” Truthiness, he explained, just feels right in the gut. It feels true. Books, with their elitist facts, may say otherwise, but truthiness feels right.  Iraq might not have had weapons of mass destruction, but it sure did feel

Mansplain? Momsplain?

Silencing a woman? Or just ignoring her? The Macquarie Dictionary, the Aussie version of Merriam-Webster, declared “mansplain” the word of the year for 2004. The neologism, or portmanteau of “man” and “explain,”

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