Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Words

English as a language tends to drift over time. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not. The word "computer," for instance, has been around for hundreds of years, far longer than we've had little metal and plastic boxes on our desks or rooms full of vacuum tubes. It originally referred, logically, to a person whose job it was to compute things. We generally don't refer to mathemeticians or accountants as "computers" these days. The word's meaning has changed. I have no problems with this, as "computer" accurately describes the (original) function of the device upon which I type this entry and we had no word to describe such devices until they existed, nor did we have need for it. Other words drift in annoying and pointless ways. Some years ago we appropriated an interesting Latin word in to the lexicon: decimate. The word originally referred to a form of discipline in the Roman Army wherein soldiers would be separated in to groups of 10, then draw lots to choose one of those ten soldiers. The nine soldiers who "won" the drawing were to then kill that tenth man. It was a brutal form of punishment reserved for only the most egregious offenses. Take the word's original meaning and, for that matter, deconstruct the roots and it becomes quite obvious that the word "decimate" means "destroy 1/10th of." Yet the majority of the time when I see the word, I see it attached to descriptions of massive amounts of destruction and sometimes to complete and utter destruction. We have perfectly good words to describe mass destruction in the English language. My two favorites are "devastation" and "obliteration." Decimation doesn't mean the same thing and the English language is impoverished by it's particular shift in meaning. The word "mythology" has similiarly lost some of its meaning and power over the years. When people speak of "the myth of [insert favorite bugaboo here]," they generally actually mean "the fiction of." Fiction and myth have become largely interchangeable in spite of the fact that they are most certainly not. So before I begin The Mythology Project in earnest, I figure it's a good idea to start out with a general explanation of what "myth" is. Since I'm lazy and can't come up with a better way to do it, I'll do the, "Webster's dictionary defines as..." thing. So, uh, from Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: 1 a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : PARABLE, ALLEGORY The second definition is the one I decry above, but in the M-W version it actually explains the basis for the confusion: 2 a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society b : an unfounded or false notion It's a subtle difference, but an important one nonetheless. In the first definition, mythology is used as a paradigm. It explains how we got here and why here is the way it is. It looks backward in to the past to understand the present. For instance, there is the very American myth of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Over the course of the telling of the myth of Paul and Babe, the storyteller explains to the audience how the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota and the massive timber operations of the northwoods came to be, among other things. It's really no different than an ancient Greek explaining there's summer and winter by telling the story of the kidnapping of Persephone at the hands of Hades. In the second definition, mythology is used as an editorial. It looks to a perception about a certain reality, then calls it out as a falsehood. To take the "American myth of individualism" quote from the M-W definition, it would be the equivalent of saying that the story of Paul Bunyan is nothing but a tale of self-determination and that it paints a completely false picture of the world. It then goes one step further and says that American individualism is not only an incorrect view, it's an impossibility. The difference, as I said, is subtle. However, if we tell the tale of Paul Bunyan using the first definition, we don't actually have to believe there was a giant lumberjack who owned a huge ox in order to get something out of the story. If we tell the tale using the second definition, we can't learn any lessons at all, save perhaps that there's no value beyond entertainment in the Paul Bunyan myth. I (obviously, I would assume) much prefer the first definition of myth to the second. So before I begin, allow me to set the baseline. I don't necessarily believe that myths are true. That doesn't mean, however, that I discount their power or ability to teach us about the world we occupy. And let it be known, I believe myths are important precisely for their ability to teach. For some interesting reading before I move on, here's an old Salon article. You might as well read it, I think I'm going to use it as a topic starter, as Mr. Brin makes some interesting claims. I don't agree with all of them and I think the entire article is useful as an object lesson in why it's not actually a good idea to take The Hero with a Thousand Faces as an exemplar of Joseph Campbell's entire body of work. Sometimes you have to read more. Heck, he probably should have read the introduction...

3 comments:

Nate said...

Dr. Brin actually has a blog, over at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com.
He hasn't been talking about Star Wars that much lately, being more concerned with the devastation the necons have been bringing upon America, but it comes up occasionally, and he'd probably be willing to discuss it in email too.

Geds said...

Thank you for that.

Ryan Ferneau said...

Oops, I thought decimate meant "destroy 9/10th of", so there would be only 1/10th remaining.