February 21, 2016

Polysemy, Now You Don’t

I’ve been thinking about people who proclaim themselves offended by words for which they mistakenly assume the wrong meaning. A celebrated example is “niggardly,” the use of which cost an aide to the mayor of Washington, DC, his job back in 1999, even though he was entirely correct and his detractors entirely wrong (the same word has starred in similar episodes around the country since then). Lately there’s been much to-do about “master.”

This is the title for, among other things, the senior faculty members appointed to live in and administer the residential student “houses” at Harvard. The same title is used, in the same way, for the residential “colleges” at Yale. Thus, the master at Dunster House; the master of Pierson College. (The direct forebears of the title are the heads of houses and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, though other titles are also in use there; for example, “warden,” “principal,” “president,” and “rector.”) It has seemed to some, and apparently for some time, that as a house title “master” is uncomfortably close to its connotation as slave owner. Bakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, in an interview in the Harvard Gazette in December 2015 said that “the general feeling has been that the title causes discomfort.”

So the question, fairly put, is whether we ought to retire a word when one of its meanings is no longer polite, or causes discomfort, or, to put the strongest case, profoundly offends, even though the intended meaning does not derive from the offensive one.

Most words, it develops, have multiple meanings (actual meanings, that is, not merely imaginary or mistaken ones). There’s even a word for this state of affairs: polysemy. And “master” is particularly polysemous. My Random House Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, lists 23 meanings for master as a noun, and a dozen other meanings when used as an adjective or verb. Most of these uses and meanings will not remind you of slaves — viz., Master of the Revels (probably not); master of Impressionism (certainly not). When used as the head of house, the word derives from magister, Latin for teacher.

Doesn’t matter, Dean Khurana says. Using the word “in the context of a university in the United States — a country with a history of slavery and of racial discrimination — adds meaning and significance to the term that we can’t easily dismiss by focusing narrowly on its classical roots.” Critics have howled. One bluntly accuses people like Dean Khurana of “insanity.” That goes a bit too far. Michael D. Smith, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was careful not to dismiss all uses of the word, limiting his objection to this: “I can’t call someone in an oversight role ‘master’ without having images of human subjugation come to mind.” That’s true not just at Harvard. But still . . .

The problem is perplexing. Words have meaning only because a community of users imparts meaning to them and imports meaning from them. Polysemous connotations can become entangled, even fuse. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter what’s logical, or whether other long-established meanings would remain useful. I defy you to use the word “gay” in the sense derived from “gaiety” anywhere in America and not feel as if you must explain yourself. Or try out “niggardly” at the next committee meeting you have to sit through. But communities of speakers can be wrong — and worse, just plain silly. (As when commercial censors banned the phrase “walking distance” from real-estate ads.) And when they’re wrong, it is reasonable to resist.

Objecting to the potential disappearance of the house title, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker recently observed in a widely reported tweet that “We should be teaching students: 1. all words have >1 meaning. 2. Mature adults resist taking pointless offense.” Geoffrey Pullum, linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, elucidated: “It is not mature or sensible to take a highly polysemous word like master, and find an echo of slavery in it, and treat that echo as a microaggression, and take pointless offense, and call for Harvard to change an administrative technical term that has been in use for generations.”

I’m persuaded, but that’s not the point. The point is, rather, who’s to decide whether it’s pointless. Recall Lewis Carroll’s well-known musing on meaning (in Through the Looking Glass): “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

Which is to be master? The Harvard house administrator or those who take offense?

Update, February 25: The Harvard Crimson reported yesterday that undergraduate House masters will be known henceforth as faculty deans.