Sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have apparently surged since Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts” into public discourse.

For many, the term is reminiscent of Orwell’s dystopian Newspeak, the imaginary language used by the novel’s totalitarian government to control the way the population thinks. It also allows for the doublethink of the slogans “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength” that also feature in the book. But while Newspeak is fiction, there’s at least an element of truth to the way it shows how meaning is shaped.

Language is never a register of completely stable meaning. Words are always slippery, always open to manipulation. We may mock how blatant Conway is in her manipulation, but disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate.

In disagreements over linguistic meaning, a usual first move is to consult the dictionary. As the lexicography scholar Howard Jackson wrote: “We all take what the dictionary says as authoritative: if the dictionary says so, then it is so.”

But this is built on a flawed conception both of what a dictionary is – and what language is. The dictionary is one of those concepts, like the Bible, which gets talked about as if there were a single canonical version. In the same way, this platonic ideal of the dictionary is seen as the most accurate record of a language. When people complain, for example, that such-and-such a word isn’t in the dictionary, they’re questioning the legitimacy of that word and suggesting that it isn’t a proper part of the language.

Dr Johnson’s oats

In actual fact, of course, there is no one dictionary. There are multiple versions, each of which includes a slightly different set of words, which are defined in slightly different ways. This has always been the case. Early lexicographers such as Dr Johnson and Pierre Larousse may have aimed at objectivity, but a certain subjectivity still crept into their work. A famous example is Johnson’s definition of “oats” which manages to include a very non-objective sideswipe at his northern neighbours: “Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

Sideswipe at the Scots

Sideswipe at the Scots. Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language

This subjectivity simply reflects the fact that the meanings of words aren’t absolute constants – that definitions stem from the way language is used. This not only changes over time, but can be contested and fought over. Take the word “theory” for example. For some it means a generalised scientific explanation of phenomena in the world. For others it’s a mere guess at how the world might work.

Difference of opinion

The internet, with its pluralism and user-based authorship, brings this clearly into focus. There’s an active online community dedicated to documenting and discussing vocabulary, one of the most popular examples of which is Urban Dictionary. Started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, the idea behind this is to record ephemeral and everyday spoken language, submitted by users, and to give definitions which are explicitly meant to be personal rather than standardised.

As Peckham says: “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, [but]as opinions.” The opinion-led nature of the definitions means that it can be used as an arena for political debate. Here, for example, are two entries for the word “Obamacare”.

A term invented by impoverished, dumb-ass neocons to apply negative connotation to the bi-partisan, congressional healthcare plan.

Also known as socialism. giving all Americans cheap bull shit healthcare. A plan to destroy the quality of healthcare.

All of which brings us to a recent initiative by the website AllSides. As part of their educational remit of exposing bias in the media, they have produced a short dictionary which presents definitions of a number of terms – including “facts”, “power” and “truth” – which often provoke controversy and end up meaning starkly different things to different people.

Their definitions offer perspectives from opposing sides of the political spectrum with the aim being to flag up that “until we understand what a term means to others, we don’t know the issue and can’t effectively communicate”. The project foregrounds the possibility of subjectivity in word meaning – not in the improvised way that Urban Dictionary does, but with greater explicitness than a “traditional” dictionary does.

Acknowledging subjectivity and pluralism isn’t to imply that linguistic meaning is a free-for-all. Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we can use a word to mean whatever we choose it to mean. Language has the ability to be surprisingly stable, despite its constant evolution and endless variety. But what it does point to is the way that meaning also resides in dialogue and negotiation with other people. That meaning a mixture of both evidence and, importantly, persuasion – which is why it can be so politically charged.

The Conversation

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, The Open University

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