The Meaning of Words

April 10, 2018

“Words, words, words” – Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Words are our means to meaning. They are also the means of winning a scrabble match on April 13, which happens to be World Scrabble Day. Whether you believe that logophile’s delight to be a board game or a bored game (see what we did there – chuckle), something very odd is happening to our words.

Here is a list of some of the new words added to The Oxford Dictionary in 2018:

  • selfie stick
  • self-certified, adj.
  • self-determine, v.
  • self-diagnose, v.
  • self-funded, adj.
  • self-medicating, n.
  • self-publishing, adj.

The lexicographers seem to have detected a meaning to the words of 2018 – let’s call it self-obsession – another notable addition to the 2018 Oxford edition.

You don’t have to look too far to find tenants of ‘selfishness’ in society – both the online and the offline society. There is an individuality beacon that shines on conformity to non-conformity.  A signal detected in the strangely modern notion that there is an audience for self-published photo-journals of superfood consumption.

The timeless Jane Austen said, “Selfishness must always be forgiven you know because there is no hope for a cure.” On a day where we are celebrating words, Austen provides an incredibly elegant and kind perspective on the label of selfishness that modern society not only wears but in some instances celebrates.

Women are now routinely told that they have to take responsibility and be ‘more selfish’. ‘Giving-too-much’ is ‘the new selfish’ in an age where women have more opportunity than ever before to self-determine. Those who self-sacrifice often end up tired, alone and with far fewer means to live on than their more selfish counterparts in retirement. Well-intentioned, but has this movement of self-preservation given society permission to be selfish? And is that really a bad thing?

I recently read about scientists who were performing experiments with a community of yeast organisms. The yeast organism in risen bread is apparently organised into two types of the organism – givers and takers. The givers perform their work more slowly, producing a type of food for them to live on in abundance. The ‘takers’ use the food that the ‘givers’ produce in much higher quantities in order to produce a better type of food that helps all of the organisms.

The implications of the research are that if the community were full of ‘givers’, they might create an abundance of the food and become lazy, effectively stopping production – which is bad. The presence of the ‘takers’ enriches the community because it creates a scarcity which keeps the ‘givers’ giving and results in the presence of two food sources – benefiting everyone. Givers and takers in the community of yeast organisms rely upon one another for their collective survival.

There is some idea that ‘teamwork’ might actually better achieve it’s outcome, in people too, where there are both givers and takers in a community. If everyone starts being selfish, no one is there to sustain the community. If everyone gives too much, there is none of the uncomfortable-ness that drives progress and innovation.

If the dictionary is correct, and dictionaries are known for being so – then there is anecdotal evidence of an imbalance from giving to taking, something the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘The Cult of The Individual’.

In social theory, laws and societies are ordered to protect the individual and, eventually, individuals become more and more separate from one another and the cohesion of traditional cultural and religious values lose their traction. The Cult of the Individual preserves the individual-ness of everyone, in a society and it is self-perpetuating, because in order to maintain one’s own individuality – one must also acknowledge a right in everyone else to be an individual.

In it’s most extreme, the Cult of The Individual results in a state of ‘anomie’, which Durkheim described as a state of normlessness and loss of cohesive values or expectations that define a community. For those advocating self-sovereignty and self-righteousness, it is important to point out that Durkheim’s work also correlated the presence of ‘anomie’ and normlessness in history with a steep increase in suicide rates and widespread misery.

Self-supremacy is not the answer to happiness, and our community knows that. Our community is free and allows individuals to be themselves based on a shared value of tolerance, not indifference. Local movements, such as the work by Liberation Larder, defines our community as a community that cares. As travel takes us outside of the Northern Rivers region – it is clear that there is something very special about where we live and the people who are drawn to make this place, their place too.

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