Words mean anything I want them to

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Or Tony Blair, with his pretendy WMDs, or Donald Rumsfeld with his oh-so-funny knockabout sketch that slayed them in the Beltway. (and yes, I have actually been there, thanks. Worked there for a short time too. Sorry. You were saying.)

This is what Donald Rumsfeld said. In case you don’t know or forgot, he was US Secretary of State for Defence. For Defence, obviously you need to remember the US Navy’s brief ten years back and presumably still the same now to pursue a strategy of littoral warfare. Littoral means ‘on the shores of.’ Given we’re talking about the sea, that means the US Navy might want a fight anywhere in the world. This is the problem when people start saying words mean anything they want them to mean. They don’t. They have very specific meanings. And the people who forget that tend to end up disadvantaged or dead.

Try this.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.[1]

Are you laughing yet?

After those words something like half a million Iraqi civilians died. I have to say “something like” because as responsible bringers of McFreedom and democracy, neither we nor the Americans nor frankly anybody else knows. Dead Iraqis? They literally didn’t count.

Didn’t matter. The old white guys had said 911=Iraq=Al Q’uaeda and almost every mainstream media outlet lapped it up.

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Not every time people try to pretend words mean anything you want them to mean hundreds of thousands of people get killed. But when they do, it matters. Even if it’s only one person.

I was talking to a young bride once. Not for long, admittedly. She’d had two children, both with her husband, just one with him before they got married and the other after. I asked her why she got married. If I’d slapped her she would have looked more friendly.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s just a word.”

Maybe, with hindsight, I shouldn’t have asked her why she did it then, but as I had I thought I might as well also ask her if she’d written a proper will. She hadn’t. Which if she and her husband die, say in a car crash, could definitely prove it’s not just a word at all. And that words matter.

"Then Sammy said 'if your Majesty hadn't spoken I'd have thought it was the horse!' Top hole, eh Mary? Oh I'm so sorry, I didn't mean er..."
“Then Sammy said ‘if your Majesty hadn’t spoken I’d have thought it was the horse!’ Top hole, eh Mary? Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean er…”

My cousin died when he went through a car windscreen aged one and a half. People do. Car crashes can happen to anyone. And it matters like this. If you die without a will the state decides who gets your stuff. Your house, for example. If you don’t have any dependents then the state might decide it’s having everything. If you do, the state will decide who gets what. The son born after the marriage might well get the lot. If he doesn’t get on with the son born before the marriage, the older boy could find he has some inheritance issues. Like not getting any.

Saying ‘it’s only a word’ is total bullshit. It isn’t.

So I was more than a bit annoyed, not for the first time, with Mary Portas. Mary made her career making sure big stores made every High Street look exactly the same, so when it got fashionable to wonder why she was David Cameron’s obvious choice to write a report about how that could un-happen. Six towns were chosen to become Portas towns and each one got a whole £100,000, or a couple of car park spaces and some new signs to make 1970-2010 go away.

Accompanied, obviously, by lots of photo ops for Dave and Mary and a battle bus on TV and much marching down High Streets with a megaphone and a camera to the overdubbed tune: Here Come The Girls, which for a while was a legal requirement for any TV programme or it certainly seemed to be.

I know. It’s a different song. I just couldn’t bear it. Any more than Mary Portas has born a son. Obviously that hasn’t stopped her gurning all over the front pages and another TV series can’t be far away.

Apparently she got her brother’s sperm and had it stuck in her civil partner. She now pretends to be able to see herself and her partner in the boy she calls her son. Which obviously, he isn’t, According to Mary, this is the biggest blow for gay rights ever in the world, which might be news to anyone who remembers Mary Tudor axing the 1533 Buggery Act or Nero marrying Pythagoras and Sporus in 54AD. Which my Maths teacher signally failed to do and probably yours did as well.

If Mary Portas wants to call the boy whose father is her brother and whose mother is her civil partner her son, good luck. Just don’t die Mary, or at least not without a will. Because your son will find words actually do mean things after all. And you won’t be there to do anything about it.

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

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