Christopher Smith wonders what has happened to some once-straightforward English words

I was taught Patristics at theological college by a rather fine theologian, a Roman Catholic Capuchin by the name of Fr Thomas Weinandy. His big thing was the immutability of God: does God change? (the answer to which, in theological terms, is ‘no’). I didn’t know it at the time, but as a young man, he had been quoted with approval by Eric Mascall in at least two of his books, Weinandy’s thesis being that that ‘when God is the subject, becoming [as in John 1.14] does not involve change’. Mascall wrote the foreword to his dissertation when it was published.

How vividly I recall turning up to tutorials with this man, who had a brain the size of a planet, both underprepared and overconfident, and how I wish I could have my time again and do it properly. One day I bounced in and started reading my essay on Cyril and Nestorius to him, beginning with a quotation I was pleased to have discovered from Through the E Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘”When I use a word,” Humpty-Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”’ Fr Weinandy looked at me with as much compassion as he could muster in the circumstances and said something like, ‘If I had a pound for every time someone has quoted that line in an essay, I’d be a rich man’.

And I now realize just how over-used that quotation is… but also how horribly apt in the modern world. Unlike God, the meaning of words does naturally change over time, but the tendency to impose new meanings on perfectly ordinary English words is now commonplace throughout our society.

Sometimes we have to translate a word which is being used for politically correct purposes, but which isn’t the real ‘issue’ – and there’s one. How often do we now hear the word ‘issues’ used for ‘problems’, or ‘challenging’ for behaviour which is naughty or downright abusive.

And my old friend the Postmodernism Generator ( is always good for a giggle: it makes up postmodernist gobbledegook of the kind which does hideous violence to the language, in order to expose the sheer awfulness of it. ‘The subject is contextualised into a presemanticist dematerialism that includes narrativity as a reality.’

Recently, undergraduates have been caught out taking other people’s work and trying to pass it off as their own by putting it through a programme which changes key words according to a thesaurus, regardless of the change in meaning which that brings about. It was highlighted by a lecturer at one of the London universities. He puzzled over the phrase ‘Herculean personalised liturgies’, which might have interested us had he not eventually worked out that it was a re-casting of ‘more powerful personalised services’. His favourite was the transformation of ‘left behind’ into ‘sinister buttocks’ – not an image to dwell on.

Humpty-Dumpty and postmodernism both came to mind when I heard a radio article recently in which a woman was interviewed because she had taken the decision to ‘marry’ herself. Do you see what I mean? ‘When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean’. She even said she was glad she was no longer ‘single’. And here’s the postmodernism generator at work: ‘I really don’t see it as any kind of feminist statement, but creating a wedding of this kind on my own terms felt incredibly empowering’. Great. According to the Daily Mirror, she ‘bought a dress [and] a ring, rehearsed vows and eventually wed in a farmhouse in rural Devon watched by her sister and friends, sealing the deal by planting a kiss on a mirror’.

And perhaps that tells us all we need to know. She gave an interview to the Guardian, too: ‘Some things…were set in stone: the ring, obviously, and the vows. Having these traditional elements was important as they gave the occasion a necessary gravitas.’ The vows? Well, they were obviously not, as we churchy types might expect, to the exclusion of all others for as long as you both shall live. Indeed, she cheerfully admitted on the Today programme (there it is again) that she was ‘open to the idea of sharing a wedding with someone else one day’.

Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I am now such a dinosaur that I ought to knock on the door of the Grande Chartreuse and never be seen in public again. My dictionaries, including the on-line one I use, say that marriage is ‘the state or relationship of being husband and wife’, and that the husband is a man and the wife a woman, but of course the law of the land now says something else. ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean’.

Our Narcissist went to a ‘celebrant’ (a word which used to mean ‘someone who performs a religious ceremony’) to organize her self-marriage. She (the ‘celebrant’) offers wedding ceremonies, baby-namings, home blessings and ‘family shifts’ (‘welcome in a new member of the tribe, be it a partner, pet or step-sibling’), as well as funerals, divorces, redundancies and retirements. I wonder whether she would wall me up in the Chartreuse?

I leave you with a letter published in the Telegraph from a gentleman by the name of Michael Stanford: ‘Sir – Radio Four’s Today programme yesterday interviewed a woman who claimed to have married herself. I couldn’t help recalling the words of a former Today presenter, the late Robert Robinson: “If this is news, on what basis do we ever leave anything out?”’ ND