Dictionary Definitions

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Apr 10, 1948 

Dictionary Definitions 

I have several dictionaries in the house, but I often feel the need of a new one. Never does a year pass without new words being added to the language—names of new drugs, new machines, new pranks of the subconscious.

And many words change their meanings. “Silly”—it is derived from a word meaning “happy”—once meant merely “simple”, but has long ceased to do so. The word “fond” used to imply foolishness, but you can say today that a child is “fond of reading” or even “fond of sweets” without suggesting that it is semi-imbecile.

One of the words that have changed their meaning on the lips of many people in recent years is “democracy.” there was a time when “democracy” meant “government of the people by the people for the people,” and this kind of government was supposed to be achieved by the citizen’s possession of a vote which he could cast in favor of someone with whose principles he was in sympathy.

This vote gave him power not only to put a government out but to elect members of parliament hostile to it who would form a new government.

* * *

There has, of course, never been a perfect democracy; but at least men took it for granted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that democracy implied the right to oppose and to organize opposition to the party in power.

Jan Masaryk put the matter in a nutshell when, looking forward during the war to freedom of his country, he said, according to a writer in “The Times”; “I want to be able at any time I like to ride in a tramcar down the Wenceslas Square in Prague and say I don’t think much of our present government.”

From the point of view of an old-fashioned democrat, to be able to say this was one of the essentials of democracy.

* * *

Yet in the world today we see a number of countries which are assured by their rulers that they are democracies and which are nevertheless refused the right to criticize their governments in an opposition or to work for a change of government through an opposition party.

“Democracy” in its new sense undoubtedly still means “government of the people”; but it no longer means “government by the people”, and in at least some cases it seems to mean “government against the majority of the people.”

“People,” however, is another word that is changing its meaning. “The people” on the lips of a democrat of the modern type is a phrase that seems merely to mean himself and others who agree with him. If you do not agree with him you are no longer one of the people; you become a “bourgeois” or perhaps a counter-revolutionary.

* * *

The new dictionary would also have to give a new definition of “freedom of the press.” So far as I can see the phrase “freedom of the press” means in the minds of some people simply the freedom not to work for a capitalist employer.

It does not, for example, mean freedom to express your honest opinion. You may do this only if your honesty opinion is the same as that of the government.

Apparently, it does not matter what freedom you take away from the press so long as it is free from capitalist ownership.

* * *

Journalists have their grievances, but it seems to me that they would be making a great mistake if they parted with the old freedom of the press without being sure that they would get something more than the new freedom of the press in exchange for it.

Socrates once said that to use words wrongly is a danger to the soul. To use words in their right sense, I am sure, is more needed even than the Marshall Plan to save Europe from becoming either a vast prison-house on the one hand or an atomic chaos on the other.





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