In December 2021, I wrote about how “words have power. As symbols, they communicate a sense of relationships, practices, processes, worldviews; they embody meaning and significance; they can incite wars or equally, they can bring about peace.” I mentioned how the changes in word meanings through history was of great fascination to me, and I gave several examples of these, including where the meaning has become virtually the opposite of what it started off as, and how changes are also related to power relations and games. Here, I continue this exploration with some more examples of linguistic twists and turns, the necessity of course corrections to rescue words that have transformative potential, or the need to interrogate some words for their regressive implications (deliberate or unintentional).
I just came back from a 3-week trip to the ‘remote’ region of Ladakh, India’s northernmost territory. While there, I traveled to the even more ‘remote’ area of Changthang, a high altitude plateau of 4500 msl average height, adjoining Tibet. And here one disturbing aspect of language I’ve been aware of for quite some time, struck me with full force. My use of the term ‘remote’ above, assumes that some place is ‘here’ or at the ‘centre’ (I’ll come back to this term below), and places far from this are remote. This term comes from the Latin ‘remover’, which meant ‘remove back’, or denoted ‘far-removed’. Now, if Ladakh’s capital Leh is as far from Changthang as vice versa, and if Delhi is as far from Leh as vice versa, why do we think of Ladakh and Changthang as ‘remote’ and not vice versa? Moreover, why do we in Pune in western India (where I live) not refer to Delhi as ‘remote’, even though the distance between here and there is way more than the distance between Delhi and Leh? We may say ‘it’s far away’, but never that ‘it’s remote’.
This is clearly not a matter of only distance, but rather more of where the centres of power lie. For India as a whole, it is Delhi; for sub-parts of India, state capitals and other major cities. So anything far from these is ‘remote’. Perhaps an even more evocative term for the same is ‘far-flung’, as if Delhi or Mumbai or Leh has thrown villages and smaller towns far away to the margins! Talking about ‘flung’, here’s another disturbingly delicious tidbit: the word, according to my computer’s inbuilt dictionary, has the following origins: “Middle English (in the sense ‘go violently’): perhaps related to Old Norse flengja ‘flog’. The main verb sense is based on an earlier sense ‘reckless movement of the body’ and dates from the early 19th century.” Given the violence with which the countryside and villages are treated by big cities in their midst, stealing their resources and dumping back garbage on them, there seems to be quite some truth in these origins!
I mentioned ‘centre’ above. One term I used to use a lot, is ‘decentralised’. It is often used in a progressive sense, of a more distributed and participatory process of decision-making, or energy production, or water harvesting, etc. But the assumption again is that there is something in the centre, and this needs to be decentred. In so far as this is used to denote the very real process of redistributing centralized power/resources/production, i.e. as a verb, this is fine – it simply denotes reality or an aspiration. But more equal distribution can also take place by people at the ‘margins’ claiming and asserting their own power (or resources or knowledge or production), because it is inherent in them, and in fact the concentration of these in a few ‘centres’ is a distortion of a system that thrives on hierarchy and oppression. I’m trying to use this term less and less, though in some contexts it is convenient as a short-hand, e.g. DRE (Decentralized Renewable Energy).
This tendency to assume one or a few centres is present in other terms too. The word ‘Non-Governmental Organisation’ (NGO), for instance, assumes that the main organization of a society is the government, and others are defined as not the government. There is the peculiarly Indian term ‘non-vegetarian’ (I’ve not heard this anywhere else in the world), which assumes that vegetarianism is the heart of Indian cuisine – which it is not, though arguably it is strongest here compared to other countries. What is interesting is that parallel converse terms don’t apply; for instance, institutions and actors outside of the state are often called ‘civil society’, but the state is not called ‘uncivil society’ (even if it often is!!!).
A favourite word the state uses when pretending to be civil and participatory, is that it will involve all ‘stakeholders’. This word has many historical connections. In the 1700s, stakeholders were those who held the money of those who bet on something, and gave it to the winner; they were therefore supposed to be neutral. Its transformation into its current usage, as someone who has an interest in something and therefore is to be consulted by the state, completely inverts this, and is therefore an example of what’s called a contronym. But as interesting, stakeholder also became the term to denote European settlers in USA who were allowed to claim private property by enclosing it with stakes (here, the word refers to one of its other origins, as ‘stick), in what was mostly common lands governed and used by native Americans. This 'enclosure movement' in USA, UK, Australia and many other parts of the world that were colonized, is possibly the greatest appropriations (or grabs!) of land (including pastures, farms, forests, wetlands, etc.) in history. And then yet another historic usage is of people, punished for whatever crimes they are supposed to have committed, were burnt ‘at the stake’. It is interesting that many of these crimes related to theft from private properties, a process that completely erased the memory of how such properties were set up by stealing from the commons that ordinary people depended on. To recount the following classic poem, whose authorship is unknown:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
Talking about ‘commons’ (or common), this too has an interesting and chequered history as a word. The commons are physical elements of nature (land, forests, water, air, etc.) or intellectual and cultural elements of human life (including knowledge, beliefs, worldviews), that are governed and managed for use by anyone in a community, in way that does not undermine their use by others in the community. They have been under complex rules and norms for millennia in Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities. But with the advent of privatization and certain western notions of ‘progress’ and modernity, including in the ’enclosure movement’ mentioned above, they were derided as resources that were subject to unregulated, open access and exploitation. This was most notable in Garrett Hardin’s famous (or infamous, depending on your inclination) ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ essay. As critics of the essay have pointed out, Hardin was actually conflating the commons with the ’opens’, and ignoring the thousands of years of careful governance and management that the former were under. Eleanor Ostrom actually won a Nobel Prize for her systematic work showing such governance (one of the few Economics Nobel’s that have celebrated a progressive contribution to sustainability). But this has not been enough to rid our language and our derisive usage of the term ‘common’, which is supposedly at an intellectual and physical rung lower than the ‘specialised’ or the ‘expert’. A ‘commoner’ does not have the status of those who specialize, or who come from the elite classes; thus, for instance, UK’s House of Commons and House of Lords, replicated in various forms in other countries that were historically colonized and have yet to come out of a colonized mindset (my own country of India included). And yet, as thousands of examples around the world are showing, if we are to rebuild our peace with the rest of the earth, and with each other, it is precisely in the commonplace, the commonsense, the sense of community, and the local to global commons, that we will have to place our full attention. This is not to denigrate specialized knowledge or the uniqueness of the individual, but simply to place the knowledge of the commons and the commoner on an equal plane to theirs. And to challenge the domination of the privatized, individualized spheres of life, including land and knowledge.
Without such fundamental re-orientation of our economy, society and polity, we will not be able to come out of the woods. Oh, oh, I just used another linguistic distortion … why is ‘coming out of the woods’ considered a good thing? Having enjoyed many a wonderful, inspiring, soul-touching walk in forests, I’d say the phrase for getting out of trouble, especially ecological collapse, should be ‘going into the woods’! Or into the grassland, into the water, etc.
Enough for the second part of my ruminations into words and phrases… I’d love to hear from you all on your own similar reflections!