Words Matter — and So Do Their Definitions

Their meanings are worth fighting for and their history is worth teaching to generations that follow.

“Letterpress” (photo: Shutterstock)

Many say that the success and stability of Western Civilization is predicated on observance of the rule of law. True enough. Having laws in place that are meaningful and enforced provides clarity and are a helpful antidote to chaos. Sometimes, of course, laws are changed and when this happens for good reason, the change is a benefit to society. But if one group or special interest lobbies to have a law changed simply to gain an advantage, most would agree that such a tactic would be unjust.

The meaning of language plays a similar role. If there isn’t general agreement among members of a society as to the definition of words, then communication quickly runs amok and our perception of reality becomes distorted. As times change, though, certain uses or meanings of words change and even disappear. This is usually innocuous and natural and no harm comes from it. Case in point: In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon in Catholic wedding vows for the groom to pledge to “worship” his bride. The connotation was that he would hold her in high regard — like how we might use “honor” today. 

But just as there are special interests who see the law merely as a tool to wield and alter for their own benefit, there are nefarious forces afoot who view language through a similar lens. When it’s convenient to change the definition of a word to avoid admitting a harsh reality or acknowledging a fact that just doesn’t fit with the narrative, Herculean efforts are made to whitewash what was “true” just yesterday.

This practice has been happening for longer than we may realize. “Gender” and “sex” used to be synonyms. They were interchangeable. Up until the middle of the 20th century, no one ever questioned this. In fact, “gender” comes from the root gene/gen, which is associated with such words as “generate.” Then along came the 1970s and the practice by social scientists and psychiatrists of separating these two terms. This was not based on hard evidence or actual “science.” It was ideological sophistry that quickly took root in academia and has become an accepted “reality” by many today. And yet, acceptance does not equate to truth nor is it indicative of proper science.

Perhaps the most egregious abuse of language, though, is with the word “pregnancy.” Few living today seem to be aware of this shell game thrust upon our society in the early 1960s, but you can quickly see how it was a game changer. When “the Pill” was introduced in 1960, one of the known aspects of the pharmaceutical industry is that women on the Pill would sometimes ovulate anyway. Were these CEOs concerned that some might therefore be disappointed with their product? No. This idea of “breakthrough ovulation” was a feature of the product — not a flaw. It was “Plan B.”

Most of the time, the Pill works by tricking a woman’s body into thinking it’s pregnant, so the body won’t ovulate. Therefore, a woman can’t get pregnant under such circumstances. However, somewhere between 3-10% of the time, women still ovulate while on the Pill. The hormonal effect of this drug then acts in its secondary capacity. It thins the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) so that as the newly-conceived baby travels down the fallopian tube for some 8-10 days and then looks to implant into the endometrium, it has nowhere to grab onto. It simply dies.

How and why isn’t this referred to as an abortion by the medical industry? It’s because those who created the Pill, along with the initial company marketing the product (Searle), were aware of this effect, so they and Planned Parenthood and many others pushing for approval by the FDA worked to change the definition of “pregnancy.” If the definition of “pregnancy” could be changed from the moment of conception (as had always been the case since this concept was understood), to be a few days later when implantation in the uterine wall occurred, they’d be able to say with a straight face that this drug did not cause abortions. 

They needed a credible organization to authoritatively declare this change, so they began lobbying the ACOG (American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology) to make this change. Though no medical, scientific, or logical evidence supported anything but the moment of conception being the rightful moment when a woman was considered “pregnant,” enough members of the ACOG apparently saw the financial value and the convenience in redefining this term, and the change was officially made in 1965.

Words matter. Their meanings are worth fighting for and their history is worth teaching to generations that follow. Otherwise, we’re all just living out a human version of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”