Language and Life

by D.G. Boland © 1997

Today, perhaps more than ever before, we are conscious of the close connection between our style of living and our use of language. What are in truth radical changes in the former are having a dramatic impact on the latter.

Such a connection has of course always applied throughout history and it is nothing to be wondered at, though, being creatures of habit, we tend to take what has long applied as necessarily unchangeable. It is a fact, however, that there is no life without change and accordingly a living language will always be undergoing change in some respect.

Change is not of itself good or bad being only as good or bad as the reasons for same. But what can be relied upon in any process of social change and a corresponding change of language use is that where there is in fact a change for the worse (in morals or in manners) it will never be publicised by its true name by those who advocate the change. Always a euphemism is used. "There is in the very titles and terminology of all this sort of thing a pervading element of falsehood." (G.K.Chesterton)

Generally, also, the new term will be coined from one of the classical languages to give it the look of something intellectually respectable. A good example is "euthanasia" which literally means "good death" (which no one could argue against) but which really means "killing the old and infirm" (where it is thought "merciful" to do so). The intention is to put them out of their misery but, unfortunately for the proponents of this form of fatalism, the means - the deliberate killing of innocent human beings - happens to be indistinguishable from murder (even if done with consent). Dying with dignity for humans is not compatible with being put down like an animal. Dignity is not reduced, and may often be increased, by the endurance of suffering.

The prevention of physical (or psychological) suffering is a common reason for advocating these sorts of changes, changes which offend our sense of morality and human dignity. The pursuit of pleasure in this life is in fact the other side of the same reason. Sexual pleasure is therefore elevated to the status of the supreme good, just as physical ill-health (with its attendant pain) is seen as the ultimate evil. The supreme principle of morality, "to seek what is good and shun what is evil", thus translates, in this (utilitarian/hedonist) ethic, into the sufficiently ambiguous phrases of "safe sex" and "easy death".

Thus it is that in the changes in relation to our sexual mores we see the greatest changes in our language use as well as the greatest use of euphemism and attempts at linguistic deception.

We have, of course, passed through the process of justifying contraception to our social conscience by calling it birth control, which is like calling euthanasia "life control", when the true name for the one is birth prevention and for the other life termination, both a refusal to continue to exercise rational control over, ie moral responsibility for, a human life.

But it is in our use of language concerning sexual activity itself that we are currently seeing the most far-reaching (and nonsensical) changes. The phrase "sexual relationship" quite plainly refers to a relationship between two individuals of opposite sex, ie between male and female. "Sexual intercourse" and "sexual reproduction" also derive from the etymological meaning of the word "sex" which relates to the division of living things into two sections for the purposes of reproduction (L. sexus, prob. from "secare", to cut or divide; hence related to "section").

Thus, to refer to ordinary sexual connections or coupling there is no need to go beyond the term "sexual". Aberrant human behaviour in this regard, however, has required the invention of a term to describe "sexual" relations and intercourse (but not reproduction significantly enough) between two individuals of the same sex. Really and rationally, these relations are not "sexual" except insofar as they use organs which were designed for sexual intercourse. To attempt to describe this unnatural relationship our language uses the term "homosexual" (adding a Greek prefix to a word of Latin origin) which literally means "of same sex", ie between individuals of the same sex.

But to use this term in reference to a relationship or intercourse involves in reality a contradiction in terms (necessarily so because of the unnaturalness of the activity). It is a relationship or intercourse between individuals but it is not a relationship or intercourse between the sexes (ie between male and female). It is therefore not really a sexual relationship.

What's in a name, you may ask? So long as we all understand one another, what does it matter if some new words have to be coined which seem to be self-contradictory. The truth is that it doesn't matter provided we are aware of what is happening and the reason for it and we don't lose touch with the real world.

There are those, however, who don't like the real or natural world and would prefer one that corresponds to their desires without any natural restraints. This process is assisted if we can create the illusion that "sexual" does not have a real reference to the natural division of people into male and female. What better way to do this than by inventing another word, through opposition to "homosexual", which will refer to relations or intercourse between the sexes.

Thus, instead of talking about sexual intercourse pure and simple we now refer to "heterosexual" intercourse. This involves a doubling up in the use of language. For "hetero" in this context has the same intent as "sexual". Not only have we now resorted to the use of names which are a contradiction in terms (which has a certain linguistic necessity) but also to names which are nothing but childish babble. The trick has worked, though, for the word "sexual" thereby loses its fundamental reference to the male/female division of people and all that is left is a reference to the organs of sexual reproduction seen as mere means. The justification of the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake has been accomplished simply by a change in the use of language.

But even more abuse of language follows this disconnection of language from reality. We now hear of a condition called "homophobia" which etymologically means a (pathological) fear of the same, but is used to refer to a fear of homosexuality. Thus we have "homosexuality" equated with "sexuality" (as a legitimate form thereof) reduced to "homo" (whose original meaning contradicts "sexual") and then made the object of a supposedly pathological fear instead of (what is closer to reality) a natural revulsion for the pathological.

A whole new universe of discourse is thus built upon this linguistic invention of a reality where it is a matter of indifference what your "sexual" preferences are or your "sexual" life style is. All very convenient for those who wish to indulge sexual pleasure without any natural restraint - but a horrible delusion which only too soon will have its natural nemesis. For it is a flight from reality; more than a moral breakdown, socially speaking, as G.K. Chesterton noted very early in the piece, it is a mental breakdown.

What is particularly disturbing at the present time, however, is the way in which the "leaders" of our society are so easily deceived by this change of language and are drawn into the world of unreality which it fosters. At this stage one would think that it is time we woke up to what is happening in our use or rather abuse of language. There are good reasons, however, for fearing that we will not until it is too late.

So that there is no misunderstanding of the position here taken, perhaps one thing further should be said on this matter.

Such is the confusion of mind engendered in respect of these moral issues that we are close to being unable to discriminate between condemning a practice and vilifying the practitioners. The confusion works both ways. The fact that a particular practice is natural and good, e.g. intercourse between the sexes within the institution of marriage, does not mean that the participants cannot be worthy of condemnation; for you can still misuse a good thing (i.e. do something of its nature good in an evil way). On the other hand, the fact that a particular practice is unnatural and objectively bad from a moral standpoint, eg homosexual "intercourse", does not mean that the participants are automatically to be adjudged immoral; for it is possible to do something intrinsically evil innocently. It is therefore no argument against a certain kind of activity to bring up the faults of some who engage in it; correspondingly, it is no argument in favour of another kind of activity to point to the fine qualities of some who engage in it.

There is, then, unfortunately, a red-herring which (conveniently for some) plagues all current ethical arguments, namely, the assumption that because one condemns some kind of conduct as immoral one thereby puts oneself up as better than those who indulge in the conduct one is criticising. This by no means follows. The discussion even of moral questions is done at a certain level of abstraction; no one can judge the rightness or wrongness of a particular action without knowing all the circumstances, including the state of mind of the doer. Ultimately, only God can judge this. We are going by externals, which could be quite mistaken ("Judge not, and you shall not be judged"). Thus, it is quite possible that a person who practises homosexual "intercourse" is a better person than one who does not, including one who condemns the action as wrong; though it remains true that one is not a better person because of such a practice. By condemning homosexuality, therefore, one is not passing judgement on any individual man, or woman for that matter.

Don Boland © 1997


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 1997. It was published in Universitas, Vol 1 (1997), No. 2.
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