The meaning of semantics

Ever since I got a letter calling me a “flatulent old harridan,” I’ve been assuming two things.

First, I assume the writer disagreed with something I’d written. I’m speculating on that, because he didn’t mention a point of contention, but I feel safe.

Second … well, I’m not exactly sure what the second point is. But it has to do with the condemnatory phrase, that “flatulent old harridan.”

“Flatulent” stings a little, I’ll admit. No point in fretting, though. Probably just a lucky guess.

“Old.” OK. Getting there, anyway, and nothing to be done about it. Except die, which seems extreme.

It’s the “harridan” that struck me, not so much for what it says as for what it implies.

To discuss that, we have to go back to a concept that I increasingly realize is outdated: Words have meanings.

Young people, up to about high school graduation age, know that because they haven’t yet learned corporatespeak and buzztalk. People older than about 50 know it, too, because they were taught vocabulary in school, and by the time obfuscation replaced communication, they were set in their ways.

It’s that group in the middle, the 20- to 40-somethings, who babble in the belief that they’re making sense.

I need an example here, and I can’t come up with a very good one because gibberish doesn’t stay with me. I hear these people talk, I read what they write, and I marvel at its lack of content, but an hour later, when I try to recall it, I can’t.

Catch phrases are a big part of it. The word “proactive,” which you hear everywhere these days, isn’t a word. At least it doesn’t appear in my 1990 Webster’s dictionary, though it is in the new one. “Take it to the next level” almost qualifies, but not quite because you can figure out what it means. “Raise the bar,” “multimedia,” “transmodal intergenerational networking,” “intermodal transgenerational facilitation” and “multiaccessible intermodal entryways” would make the cut: They don’t mean anything, but you could toss them into any discussion of business or education, and no one would call you on them because they sound like they should.

So would “bitch,” which is what got me thinking about this. I heard a bunch of guys tossing it around, and while I wasn’t offended, I was puzzled: It was clear they didn’t know what it meant. It was a word they’d heard, and they had some sense that it had shock value, and they were just tossing it around to see where it stuck.

That’s what I thought of when I read “harridan.” I know language evolves, and I realize words change meaning over time. “Awesome” and “fabulous” mean “cool.” These three words, and for that matter, “bitch,” all meant something different to grandpa than they do to us.

“Harridan,” I think, is not in that category. Hardly anybody uses it now, but when someone does, it means what it meant in the 16th century: “a gaunt, ill-formed woman, a decayed strumpet” ("usually a term of vituperation,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes helpfully). Using it to describe a male who, while not particularly well-formed, is certainly not gaunt simply indicates ignorance. It reminds me of nothing so much as the “Dirty Word Dictionary” my brother and sister compiled one rainy day when they were about 8 and 6. I was older, and when I got home, my mother, laughing until tears rolled down her face, showed it to me. I remember just one entry, but it echoes in the incomprehensible babbling we hear all around us today.

“Hell,” it said, meant “to wee-wee outside.”