Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 28, 2017

The Fracas About Fribbits

By N.S. Palmer

Humpty-means

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

It’s arbitrary which meanings we assign to things. We can assign any meaning we want, but meanings are not all equally useful for dealing with the ordinary situations of life.

Suppose that up to now, everyone in our social group has used the word “fribbit” to mean what we’d call a “rabbit.”

A fribbit is a plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail. In other words, “fribbit” connects to those descriptions and to other things. When people in our social group talk about fribbits, they’re talking about rabbits.

One day, Janet announced that “fribbit” was a bad word because it was too limited. She wanted everyone to use the word “frabbit,” which she said was more useful. A frabbit was either:

  • A fribbit,
  • A pencil,
  • A car,
  • A coffee cup, or
  • A computer.

“Frabbit” was more efficient because you only needed to learn one word instead of five. Sure, she said, it was traditional to use both the word “fribbit” and the other four words, but her way was better.

Just to appease Janet, everyone grudgingly agreed to start using the word “frabbit.” Frank, the conservative of our group, had always half-believed that “fribbit” was a dirty word, so he was happy to go along with the change.

But Riff Raff still had a question:

“What if we want to talk about fribbits, and make it clear that we’re not talking about all the other things?”

Janet scolded Riff Raff for insulting all the people who worked in factories that manufactured pencils, cars, coffee cups, and computers. She called him an elitist snob, a Frabophobe, and declared that it was hateful for anyone to use the word “fribbit.”

So we all grudgingly agreed never to use the word “fribbit,” lest we offend factory workers or incur Janet’s wrath.

Janet said that frabbits were obviously manufactured items since four out of five of their components were manufactured.

Riff Raff asked, “But what about …” and he stopped. There was no permitted word with which he could pose his question.

Janet glared at him angrily. He said, “Never mind.”

Having disposed of Riff Raff’s objection, Janet explained that factories could produce any of the items, so it was arbitrary which was which. A frabbit that had been a computer could be a coffee cup. A pencil could be a car. And a car could be – well, some kind of furry thing for which there’s no name other than “frabbit.” To deny that any kind of frabbit could be any other kind of frabbit was the worst sort of narrow-minded bigotry.

Henceforth, Janet decreed, we had to treat all frabbits as interchangeable. If anyone thought their computer was a coffee cup, then it was a coffee cup, and so forth.

We ended up with lots of frabbits but no way to distinguish which was which. A few tragic accidents occurred when people tried to drink their coffee out of a pencil, but it was a small price to pay for being on the right side of history.


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