Stealing Names

July 2, 2015

 

In the appendix to his futuristic novel “1984,” George Orwell described “Newspeak,” a language that eliminate politically inconvenient words and concepts. In the novel, the ruling elite understands that one of the best ways to destroy an idea or institution is to deprive it of its name.

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5 to 4 that state laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional (Obergefell v. Hodges). Naturally, this decision will only confirm what Russian propaganda has long been insisting upon: that Ukraine’s chief foreign supporter, the United States, is bent on destroying the sacrament of marriage. But ironically enough, the fate of the term “marriage” recalls the fate of the term “Russia.” Both have been the targets of a semantic sleight of hand.

As lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell commented, “Marriage” now has a new meaning. About two weeks before the Obergefell decision, a friend of mine suggested that since “marriage” would probably be redefined to include same-sex unions, it would be necessary to invent a new word to denote what had hitherto been known under that name. This called to mind a parallel with the names of Russia and Ukraine.

The semantic mechanism works as follows. Term “A” and term “B” mean essentially different things. However, term “A” is redefined to include term “B.” Consequently, that which it originally signified no longer has a signifier. Deprived of a name, the concept is effectively marginalized.

This is how this mechanism operated in East Slavic history. In the medieval period, the term “Rus’” was rendered in Latin as “Russia.” The southern Rus’ heartland, centered on the capital of Kiev -- the territory of today’s Ukraine — was sometimes (and quite appropriately) termed “Russia” (“term A”). With time, however, the growing northern principality of Moscow (or Muscovy) (“term B”) appropriated and redefined the term “Russia.” In 1713 Tsar Peter I declared his realm to be “Rossiia,” thus redefining “Russia” as a Muscovite realm that would also include the old Rus’ heartland as its colony. Since then, Muscovy has been known as “Russia.” In other words, the Rus’ heartland of the south was deprived of its name, which was now used for something quite different. At the same time, it was deprived of its liberty. It was no mere coincidence.

By a similar procedure, five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have redefined the term “marriage” (a union of one man and one woman) so as to include a union of two men or two women, which is an essentially different thing. Thus, “marriage” in the United States (and other Western countries) now includes both homosexual and heterosexual unions. As a result, heterosexual unions have been deprived of their name.

Eventually, they will find a new name. After all -- to return to our parallel example -- the direct descendants of Kievan Rus’ took up the medieval term “Ukraina,” meaning “country” or “borderland,” to designate their land.  And though they were thus literally marginalized for centuries, at least they survived, and now call themselves “Ukrainians.” Perhaps the institution formerly known as “marriage” will now have to survive under a revived rubric like “holy matrimony.” The people of thirty-one of the fifty American states, let it be remembered, voted to uphold that institution. But in the meantime, the effect of the Supreme Court’s semantic maneuver will be to weaken heterosexual unions and their progeny – in other words, the family — as a normative social institution.

In the appendix to his futuristic novel “1984,” George Orwell described “Newspeak,” a language that eliminated politically inconvenient words and concepts belonging to “Oldspeak.” In the novel, the ruling elite understands that one of the best ways to destroy an idea or institution is to deprive it of its name. No doubt he was thinking of the USSR, which could look back to Peter I’s manipulation of the term “Rossiia.” “Marriage,” redefined last week by the U.S. Supreme Court, now belongs to Newspeak.

Andrew Sorokowski

RISU


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