Taking Back Our Words


Recently, I received a message from a group called Trees Have Rights Too. They want to create a Meme, a replicating cultural entity, from the word “ecocide”:

We want to get this word out into the public consciousness so that we can call for the restoration of ecocide territories and protection of those territories at risk of ecocide. Help us transmit this word as a meme and start using ecocide, posting it out there on blogs, writing about it, calling on those who can help stop the ecocide of the planet…let us know where it is turning up around the world and we will post it up.

The word ecocide isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, and it forms the title of an incredible book by Franz Broswimmer that I urge every one of you to read if you can still get hold of it; but the use of a single word as a meme is an interesting concept and potentially powerful, even if the application of the meme seems flawed in this case. Why is it flawed? Because the plan doesn’t recognise a fundamental property of words: their malleability. In short, language is one of the most dynamic elements of human culture: any one word can change meaning rapidly from one generation to the next, even within a single generation; it can have several meanings at once depending on context, and – as we will see – it can be manipulated to mean whatever the dominant influence in a culture wants it to mean.

The meme is not the word: the meme is the meaning of the word.

That is not to say that individual words cannot be used to great effect; the group correctly identifies “genocide” as a seminal word of huge cultural significance, such that the Sudanese government took great pains to prevent the massacre of innocents by the Janjaweed in Darfur being pronounced as a genocide by the United Nations, and the Turkish government are still threatening political intransigence in the event that the state-ordered slaughter of Armenians in 1915 is ever referred to as genocide by the USA.

A very limited number of words have such power on their own, and it is highly likely that the cultural significance of a word, rather than its definition per se is the key to change through language. Few people are shocked to see the word “fuck” in print today, even though such occurrences caused extremely strong reactions in the 1960s. Yet, 50 years ago, Americans would routinely use the word “nigger” to describe people of African origin – something considered intolerable to the vast majority of people now. I agree that new words may be a useful tool where none exist to adequately express the gravity of the current ecological and humanitarian situation: we will indeed need to be able to express ourselves, rather like a whole new level of swearing!

Stolen Language

But a lack of words is not really the cause of our cultural lethargy in the face of impending ecocide; it is that words have been stolen and co-opted to reflect the desires of the rulers of the systems we are subject to. Some of our most powerful tools have been taken from us – the pen is losing the battle against the sword. What we observe is that there is a whole tranche of words that no longer mean what they once did. One of them – “green” – has slipped away so rapidly, it seems easier simply to hand over the reins to the word’s new Masters:

This time we need something the marketers will never want to appropriate – and that’s why Brown may be the new Green. It’s the color of the Earth, of dirt – it reminds us that things smell as they compost, it reassures us that we do not necessarily need to put on a clean white shirt to go to work. But Madison Avenue does not like stains. Try saying “Brown Huggies.” It will never take off.

Or will it? I suspect that the moment ecologists start to use the word “brown” as something good then the marketing executives will be straight on the bandwagon, hosing down all vestiges of dirt to present to the consumer the New Brown in Town. Giving in is what we have become used to; but there is no Earthly reason for us to accept this corporate mauling of our language, as I wrote in a response to that article:

I don’t believe for a moment that the corporate world will let go of the word “green” without a fight, and I certainly have some sympathy with Nick [Rosen] in turning to our old friend “brown” – good old earthy brown, compost brown, manure brown, bark brown – but while brown is a colour you are far more likely to find in a woodland than in a shopping mall, it is not the only colour of life.

In fact life has a host of different colours: the vivid reds that signify the fruits of autumn and the segment of sun as it disappears over the horizon; the warm oranges of so many flowers, pebbles and leaves; the wide blue of the sky and its reflected light in the oceans; the white of the brightest cloud and the firmest mushroom; but most of all the green of leaves, of algae, of plankton – the green that means photosynthesis, that means oxygen, that means life.

Green is the reason we are here.

No corporation is ever going to take that away from us – it can try, but I’m claiming it back from the bastards who haven’t just stolen “green” for their own nefarious purposes, but are stealing the entire language from our lungs.

Words are enormously powerful; in many ways they are a defining feature of our culture, not only because of the number of ways that they can be used – in the form of poetry, debate, story-telling, song and innumerable others – but also because we have become conditioned to accept certain words as having significance beyond their physical incarnation. These words are more than just symbols – they are tools that can be, and are, used to manipulate the way we think and act.

“They behaved like animals!”

The use of the word “animal” in that context is not accidental; it derives from the Enlightenment view that humans were above the common animal whose screams were “the mere clatter of gears and mechanisms”. Despite us clearly being animals, the adopted viewpoint is that to behave like an animal is to be less than human. Is this your viewpoint, or were you taught to think like that?

It is some small relief that the German philosopher, Wittgenstein took the view that our internal experiences were isolated from what we would normally understand as language. He explained this in the context of pain, in that a person could reasonably question (through our use of language) whether we were in pain or not; but we could never doubt whether we are in pain or not – the experience is not subject to communicating that experience. This suggests that our internal self is isolated from the outside world by the lack of a useful interface, thus providing us with some protection from cultural interference.

Nevertheless, as we strive to communicate our experiences through words (among other things) such that others may understand them, we open up a door to these experiences, and in doing so allow a dialogue to exist. The interface between our internal experience and the external manifestation of these experiences is not a one way street. Words affect our emotions, they can hurt, they can heal, they can change who we are.

“I hate you!”

“I love you.”

Why do politicians make speeches? One could make the argument that they simply like the sound of their own voices, but in that case why not just talk to an empty room? The point is that politicians understand the nature of this interface between the external and the internal only too well. Rhetoric can sway opinion; true oratory can create lifelong beliefs: once more unto the breach brothers and sisters, fight them on the beaches and be the change you want to see.

Just words, surely?

No, not just words – ideas enshrined in policy and broadcast through the mouths of the common man, the paid-up celebrity and the pages of your children’s schoolbooks. Orwellian speak seems quaint and almost harmless compared to the ideas we are being asked to swallow – from the joys of wage slavery to the wonders of the infinite growth economy, via the imposition of “freedom” through the barrel of a gun. If you can dress it up in the right words then people will accept almost anything.

Reclaiming Words

It goes without saying that if we had to use words properly, i.e. not change their meaning to suit our own ends; then our ability to manipulate lives would be severely curtailed. To put it another way, if words had to be used in their unfettered form then we, as free-thinking human beings, would be subject to far less cultural manipulation.

That would be disastrous for the industrial machine.

I am absolutely determined to do what I can to help free words, and thus people, from the shackles of industrial civilization. That is an immense task, and not something I can achieve alone: however, if I can at least identify the most important words to reclaim – to “predefine” if you like – then that will be a start. After that we can work out how to reclaim the words.

I’d like to start by quoting from Time’s Up! to give a flavour of what I mean:

Some words, which we unwittingly use in neutral terms, are deeply grounded in civilization; as though that is the only way of being. ‘Consumer’ has become a general term for a person going about their daily life, when it actually means someone who is taking part in a consuming activity, like shopping or tourism. ‘Advanced’ and ‘Developed’ are terms used to describe cultures that are at the peak of human endeavour, when they are actually very specific terms to describe a high level of technological or economic activity; likewise, ‘Backward’ and ‘Undeveloped’ are used to put non-industrial, low-resource-use societies in a poor light, as opposed to ‘good’ civilization. ‘Developing’ is purely aspirational: it implies that a society or country that is not ‘developed’ is aspiring to become so. ‘Civilized’ and ‘Uncivilized’ are similarly used to imply positive and negative aspects of a culture or society when these words actually describe to what level it is based around living in cities. Words like ‘Savage’, ‘Wild’ and ‘Animal’ have been framed in almost completely negative terms, when they simply imply that something is natural.

Already we have a list of words that have either been manipulated to be positive when they are not, or negative when they are neutral or positive. The terms “negative”, “neutral” and “positive” are from the point of view of Natural Law – that which determines what is right for all life. With that in mind, here are the words that I think need reclaiming as soon as possible.

The civilized meaning is stated first, followed by the predefinition – a meaning that is simply descriptive and unbiased. The predefinition is what we should aim to use, as opposed to the civilized meaning, for which alternative words will be needed. Where a word has no predefinition, i.e. the word has no meaning outside of civilization, then it should not be used at all.

The list is not exhaustive, and I am happy to consider suggestions.


Civilized meaning
Achieving a high level of adoption of one or more facets of civilization. These will include technology, finance, trade, industry, mass transportation, retail and construction. For instance, a Technologically Advanced society is one that is characterised by the intensive use of technology; a Financially Advanced society is one that has fully adopted capitalist principles.

Achieving a high degree of adoption of any positive aspect of society. This is not culture specific, so can mean, for instance, achieving a successful balance of food production and soil fertility.

Animal / Wild

Civilized meaning

Out of control; not observing any of the acceptable behavioural norms of civil society. Both words are used in the negative, and interchangeably, when referring to human behaviour, regardless of the context.

“Animal” means pertaining to the kingdom Animalia. “Wild” means undomesticated; not under the direct control of human beings.

Civilization (alt. Civilisation)

Civilized meaning
The physical manifestation of civilization is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a developed or advanced state of human society.” In general terms, civilization describes a form of society that is more advanced (civilized meaning) than other types of society.

A form of society characterised by all of the following: settlements of 5,000 people or more; full time labour specialisation; concentration of surplus; class structure; state-level political organisation. The overriding symbol of civilization is the city, into which resources (see later) are imported, and from which waste is exported.

Civilized (alt. Civilised)

Civilized meaning
A wide-ranging term of approval, which can refer to the behavioural, functional or physical characteristics of something. It generally refers to that which is acceptable within human society.

Behaviour, function or appearance that is associated with civilization.


Civilized meaning
A generic term for a human that lives within society. In common use, particularly in a political sense, the word is used interchangeably with “person”.


A person that lives exclusively within a market economy, where “consumption” implies the use of goods and services provided by that economy.


Civilized meaning
Almost always with reference to nation states, this describes a high level of economic achievement across a range of different indicators, the widespread adoption of free-market systems and behaviour indicative of mass-consumerism.

A state of finality in any endeavour.

Note: In cyclical societies (those that embrace natural cycles) “developed”, along with “developing” and “development”, are not especially relevant terms – “mature” is a more appropriate word.


Civilized meaning

This describes the movement towards a developed (civilized meaning) state. It is used as an aspirational word, suggesting a desire to be developed.

Moving towards a state of finality in any endeavour.


Civilized meaning

The acquisition of various skills and knowledge required to take an active part in the labour force or power structures of a civilized society, attained via a system of schooling and vocational training.


The acquisition of various skills and knowledge required in order to survive and, where relevant, act as a valuable part of a society.


Civilized meaning
A discrete role within society required in order to earn money such that the job-holder can buy goods and services. Having a job is viewed as a positive thing (cf. jobless / unemployed). The aim of education (civilized meaning) is to get a job.

A form of work for payment in cash, goods or kind. Job is a discrete subset of work, and in most cultures has no meaning.


Civilized meaning
Approximately synonymous with development, but can refer to a wider range of topics, including technology (technological progress) and science (scientific progress), and for which there is no clearly defined endpoint. The aim of starting any endeavour within civilization is to achieve progress.

To move towards achieving something. Although generic, this term is alien to most non-civilized cultures, as “progress” implies linear rather than cyclical behaviour.


Civilized meaning
Anything that is of use to civilization, usually for the purpose of enabling progress (civilized meaning). The term implies ownership of whatever is being taken and/or used: something is not strictly a “resource” unless it is either available to be used, or has been reserved for use by a nation / company / individual.


In non-industrial societies, all things are borrowed or lent; therefore “resource” has no meaning.


Civilized meaning
Usually akin to “wild” or “animal” (as a behavioural descriptor), but tends to describe the behaviour or appearance of entire cultures. Savage is always used in negative terms.

This word has no equivalent meaning outside of civilized society, but could be used in neutral terms in the same way as “wild”.


Civilized meaning

Although there is a recognised definition – leaving something in the same state as it is found – the term is much more widely used to mean something that is less damaging than the equivalent “unsustainable” process. The term is also used to describe goods and services in the same manner.

An activity / process that causes no net degradation of the natural environment in which it is performed.

Undeveloped / Backward

Civilized meaning
Any group of people, or any political system that has not attained a high level of economic achievement across a range of different indicators, the widespread adoption of free-market systems and behaviour indicative of mass-consumerism. Both of these words have negative connotations, and are used interchangeably, although the former – being the more politically correct term – is used more widely.

“Undeveloped” means not having achieved a state of finality in any endeavour. “Backward” has no meaning in non-civilized societies.


Civilized meaning
This is almost always synonymous with “job”, meaning an activity the purpose of which is to earn money. There are various origins of the words for “work” in various languages — “work”, “labor / labour”, “travail”, “toil” in English, “arbeit” in German (cf. the related “earfothe” or “hardship”, in Old English), “ergon” in Greek, and so on. The ancient meaning usually includes the concept of grief, suffering and trouble1. This, along with historical connotations (for instance, “Arbeit macht frei”) explains why “job” is used in favour of “work” by politicians and corporations.

Any activity required to achieve an outcome. In physics, work is simply the amount of energy expended, with “useful” work being the amount of energy over time that is effectively used in the execution of a task. The converse is “non-useful” work, or wasted energy over time.

Use your words wisely.

This essay forms part of a larger campaign to take the power of words away from the dominant culture; some of the work is featured on The Unsuitablog.

1. Thanks to Peter Goodchild (via http://www.culturechange.org) for this information.

Originally published at http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/51038

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