Lesbian, Sex, Marriage, Nasty…Meaning?

Poet T.S. Eliot said, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” Eliot could not have imagined Trump and the current climate of evolving word meanings. Trump’s use of a few select, relatively benign words- winning, huge, fake news, stupid, CH-ina- are branded with meanings specific to Trump political rhetoric and transform to mean exactly what he wants them to mean. His supporters grasp the hegemonic power of his (simple) word capital while the rest of the world sits perplexed by the meaningless word-strings that construct his message. Exhibit A: Trump won bigly by promising to win huge and build a wall and lock her up because of the media’s fake news. What words mean after being Trumped depend on the context in which Trump uses them. It’s quite brilliant, actually.

However funny (or alarming) Trump words may seem, language is political. Words, despite the simplicity of the letters that construct them, “carry oceans on their small backs” and change in meaning over time. A century ago gay meant lighthearted and frivolous but today means homosexual (a nineteenth-century word- sorry, it’s not in the Old Testament). Socrates said, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” but he forgot to mention it is also the source of immense power. Three words illustrate the politics behind the meaning of words.

First, MARRIAGE. For many moons it meant a union between a man and a woman but today means the legal or formal union of two persons. With same sex marriages legal in all fifty states- voila!- the word meaning reflects the cultural shift… so goes the law, so goes the meaning.

Unlike MARRIAGE, the efforts to change the meaning of SEX and LESBIAN have not fared as well. Take the word SEX. Apparently, few really know what it is other than copulation now that gender has stolen its meaning. This is a recent development. Under the Obama Administration, gender identity emerged as a hot button civil rights issue because the word gender is absent in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX. To assure the just treatment of transgender people, Obama claimed they were protected under the 1972 Title IX provisions that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The maelstrom that followed saw state’s scramble to accommodate both transgender and cisgender students in public facilities and prompted controversial legislation like North Carolina’s HB2. In May 2016 the Obama Administration told all federal agencies to treat gender identity the same as sex as stated under Title IX, thus changing the meaning of sex to promote just treatment under the law for transgender people. This was later blocked in district court by Judge Reed O’Connor who argued Obama’s attempt to redefine sex was unlawful as was the inclusion of gender identity under the Title IX provisions. Although this ruling was appealed, Trump has halted the effort. Sex still means the anatomical and biological difference between male and female. Whew!

LESBIAN, like SEX, still remains trapped in its historic meaning despite the concerted effort of scholar Adrienne Rich in her seminal essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Here, Rich attempted to transform the meaning of lesbian- a word with clinical, politically negative and sexualized meaning- to signify all female love on what she called the lesbian continuum. She defined the lesbian continuum “to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support…to grasp breadths of female history and psychology that have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of lesbianism.” Rich claimed all love between women- from mother to child, girlfriend to girlfriend and on the far end, erotic love between females- as lesbian thus neutralizing a politically and medically charged word by redefining it to mean all female love, not just the erotic. Although a brilliant effort, Rich did not succeed.

It is a new age for wordsmiths. Word meanings are under constant renovation. Nasty and woman, once simple and innocuous words, transformed when the POTUS combined the two into an insult that goes down as a classic in the chronicles of attacks. Not willing to let Trump win, Hilary and Elizabeth appropriated Nasty Woman, and it now serves as the tagline for modern feminism. New word. New Meaning. Thanks Trump!