OT feminisms (was Meredith Ann Pierce)

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Wed Mar 10 02:35:17 EST 2004

>When I point out the multiple connotations of any word, be it
>"feminist", "queer", or "shoes", I don't necessarily feel that a
>multitude of positive or negative connotations results in an ultimately
>positive or negative meaning.  I think a multiplicity of meanings makes
>words more interesting, which makes meaning more interesting, which
>makes life more interesting.  I like multiplicity; it makes me happy.

The poet in me wants to agree, but the diplomat in me thinks that when a
word amasses too many different connotations, whatever they are, the word
becomes "problematic", and people hesitate to use it in casual contexts.
It's like a knife that has been sharpened and sharpened: it is now a much
better knife for cutting or slicing or stabbing or whittling, but you would
think twice before using it to spread butter. Once the word has been wielded
for a Cause, it gains a lot of power, but it loses its transparency or
innocence. I'm sure people used to say words like "queer" much more
frequently in a casual context before the word collected political
resonance. This is not to say that the word becomes a *bad* word,
necessarily, but it does become a more powerful word that must be used with

Words can also lose meaning from overuse in a certain context. I'm thinking
of a particular quote from Israel's former PM Bibi Netanyahu, who once said
on television: "reciprocality ('hadadiyut') is a fine concept, but it needs
to come from both sides." For so many months the word "reciprocality" had
been a buzz-word euphemism for "concessions", that in his mind it must have
lost its original meaning. I see it as part of the job of poets to retrieve
the lost meanings of words, and by using them to their own purposes,
reinvest them with their former powers. However, I'm not sure that once a
word has picked up a connotation, even a poet can ever erase that
connotation completely.

Wouldn't it be interesting if these principles applied to magic words as
well? Imagine a charm for calling fish into a net, that is commonly used by
simple fishermen. Now imagine the king of the realm using this word in a
war, and calling the enemy into an ambush. After the charm was used for a
massacre, would the simple fishermen ever go back to using it casually to
call in the fish? Now imagine the wizard as poet, decades after the war,
going back to the abandoned charm and reusing it in a fishy context...

I'm sure there's a story here somewhere, if only I knew how to write it. But
I'm no good at writing stories. My childhood was too happy. ;-)

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