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Can a word be murdered?: Committing verbicide against “family”

by Michael Wagner

People think and communicate through language, and each language uses words with particular meanings. Thus words are important tools in thinking and communicating. As George Orwell so famously pointed out decades ago, it’s possible to channel people’s thoughts by manipulating the words they use. Thoughts can be restricted if words are not available to carry certain “forbidden” meanings. How can you think about something if you don’t have any words to represent that something?

Redefining “family”

In some cases there is a natural evolution in the meaning of words, and that’s nothing to be concerned about. But when the meanings of words are deliberately changed to advance a sinister political agenda, that is an entirely different matter. And there are those, especially some extreme feminists, who want to change the meaning of the word family as part of their political program.

The word family still carries many positive connotations in our culture. To be in favor of the family is generally considered to be a good thing. Thus many Leftists who oppose the traditional family (what has historically been understood as family) nevertheless don’t want to be classified as “anti-family.” The best way for them to overcome this problem is to redefine the word family and then claim it for themselves.

Bryce Christensen writes about this in his book Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius Press, 1990). He refers to a number of instances where Leftists embrace the word family while emptying it of its historical meaning, as a way of achieving political advantage. In some instances politicians have represented the government itself as being a family in order to justify extending its programs. More commonly, the social Left likes to define family as just about any group of people living together. “For them, the semantic question is neither more nor less than a question of political mastery. Acknowledging no abiding norm or ideal to be represented as family, they see merely a cluster of popular emotions waiting to be captured at the hustings.”

The purpose of changing the meaning of the word family is to be able to implement policies harmful to the traditional family while appearing favorable to the family at the same time. It is hard to advance a political program that is blatantly anti-family, so a subterfuge of support for the family is necessary. The “redefiners take up the word family as an available and useful tool for shaping an entirely unprecedented social order. It does not disturb most contemporary advocates of a statist family policy that they are repudiating a semantic heritage traceable all the way to our Indo-European forebears. For many, any redefinition of family that secures political advantage is justified.”

Verbicide

Christensen notes that C. S. Lewis called this sort of thing “verbicide,” that is, “the murder of a word.” The effect is to gut the word of its historic connotations. “Semantic ‘cues’ that point to marriage, fidelity, and parental responsibility all vanish when family is redefined to include cohabiting couples, unwed mothers, and every other social grouping.”

This desire to change the meaning of the word family is exhibited in Canada by feminists such as Margrit Eichler who wrote The Pro-Family Movement: Are They For or Against Families? (Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 1986). Basically, the thrust of her argument is that by utilizing the new expansive definition of family, feminists can paint the pro-family movement as actually opposing many families, i.e., those that aren’t traditional families. In this warped line of reasoning, the pro-family movement is not “pro-family.”

Eichler notes that the pro-family movement supports only the traditional family, or what she calls the “patriarchal family.” This, she claims, excludes other social groupings that she considers to be families. She concludes then, “that the so-called ‘pro-family’ movement is in fact only advocating one type of family, namely the patriarchal family who can subsist on one income to the detriment of the majority of families in Canada. It is therefore inappropriate to utilize the label of pro-family for this movement. An appropriate label would be the Movement for the Restoration of the Patriarchal Family.”

Eichler is sensitive to the fact that feminists have been accused of being anti-family. And she is honest enough to admit that, “provided we equate the patriarchal family with ‘the family’ per se (of which simplification some feminists are equally guilty), there is some substance to the charge that feminists are against the family.”

Conclusion

But by using the more expansive definition of family that she favors, Eichler wants to turn the tables. The new definition allows feminists “to counter the attempts of the movement for the restoration of the patriarchal family to win an undeserved monopoly on pro-family rhetoric.”

This last phrase is key. Some feminists want to be able to use “pro-family rhetoric” in an effort to undermine the traditional family. But this is not possible if the word family itself carries with it the connotations of the traditional family. So the new, expansive definition of family must replace the old meaning. In this respect a deliberate change in the definition of a word can serve sinister ideological purposes.

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