4 March 2017

Entropy and language

Hunter S Thompson used a quote from Dr Johnson as the epigraph for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ Johnson may have been influenced by a reading of Donne’s Sermons: ‘Inordinateness of affections may sometimes make some men like some beasts; but indolency, absence, emptiness, privation of affections, makes any man, at all times, like stones, like dirt.’ (1640.)

The first and greatest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that ‘existence is suffering’. To be alive is foremost to suffer but, if one characterises suffering as a breakdown of order, even inanimate objects are not immune. Wind and rain wear down the mountain; the very core of the planet is cooling; apparently the entire solar system will at last be swallowed by a black hole.

Inherent in any system is its decay. The physicist would describe this as an increase in entropy. Entropy can be defined as ‘The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.’

Language itself cannot escape, as neatly evidenced by the decline of the original Greek word for suffering, pathos, which we find today in such compound terms as pathology, sympathy (sym indicating ‘together’) and apathy (a indicating ‘without’). In classical Greek, apathēs simply means ‘without suffering’, but entropy has been at work on the word in English and it means something very different now. In fact its meaning has rotated almost a hundred and eighty degrees. The apathetic suffers more than the man of purpose: his inner life is about as grim as it gets.

Something analogous has happened to our related borrowing from Latin. Cicero wanted an equivalent for the Greek word apatheia in its sense of ‘freedom from pain’. The Latin word for pain is dolor (by the way, it’s tempting fate to name your daughter ‘Dolores’), so he came up with indolentia. This didn’t much catch on (Seneca proposed impatientia instead) but nonetheless ‘indolent’ had that meaning among some English writers up till the eighteenth century, and even now a doctor terms a tumour ‘indolent’ if it causes no pain.

Thus words decay along with everything else. They get knocked about, mangled, eroded, during transmission from one human to another, especially when the transmitter is not well educated or, perhaps, well intentioned.

The latter phenomenon is all too evident today. Consider the pejorative poison being absorbed by ‘denier’, or indeed the evolution of ‘bigot’ – a word which, at its first known use in 1598, simply indicated a hypocrite. Later it also meant a superstitious person, especially one ‘obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a creed, opinion, or ritual’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which, under ‘bigoted’, says ‘obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion, or party, and intolerant towards others.’) Nowadays it simply denotes anyone I disagree with, provided I am on the left of the political spectrum. Somehow the word has been appropriated by one side. Rightists are reduced to casting around among inferior alternatives to demonise their truly bigoted (in the sense of ‘intolerant’) counterparts.

Entropy is working its magic on ‘bigot’. As an over-used insult it is becoming almost as ineffectual as ‘Nazi’. The insultee merely shrugs his shoulders and views the terms as identifying his opponent.

With all the hysterical mud-slinging characterising, say, the recent presidential election in America, it is tempting to withdraw: to become apathetic, indolent, inert, indifferent to the unreasoning nonsense spewed by both sides, but that would be to yield too soon to entropy.

No, we must observe the culture war and its ideological skirmishes not just as a freak show but also as a source of instruction. In the intense heat of its rage and intolerance, certain words are being eroded so quickly that we can observe, in a matter of months or even weeks, philological decay that might previously have taken years.

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