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Language and the Nature of Society

Today, Thucydides gives us our thought for the day.

"And they changed the customary meaning of words in proportion to their actions according

to what they now deemed right. For the most reckless daring was now considered to be the

courage of the loyal comrade, hesitation with foresight was now a fair-sounding cover for

cowardice, moderation a screen for unmanliness, and cleverness at seeing the whole

picture was considered idleness in all things."

Essentially, recklessness and daring had replaced reason. Reason was now weakness, recklessness a sign of strength and bravery,

Words and their meaning are a matter of convention, human convention. They can change from positive to negative and vice-versa. You will notice that I highlighted a section of translation above in bold. 'meaning of words' is the way this phrase is frequently translated and is the translation given in the lexicon of Liddell & Scott. However, it could also be translated as 'value of names/labels'. This gives a slightly different nuance to the passage. People don't just change the meaning of words, what they prize in their fellow human beings and their society can change swiftly fuelling a change in language and its usage. A rather trivial modern example is 'sick'. It can describe physical discomfort, a remark in bad taste or an act that seems twisted. More recently it has come to be used as a synonym for 'cool' or 'awesome'.

But can we think of any examples closer to the state of affairs described by Thucydides, where events have led to the meaning of words being altered, reflecting a reversal or sudden shift in values? And can we see evidence of this in our own times?

Thucydides knew well the value of studying recurring patterns in history due to the 'human factor'. Here I think he has offered us a very important one to be aware of.

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