George Graham

The Meanings of Words


Words gave me a living so I owe them some respect. And I wonder at the cavalier use of words in the news today, especially in political “stories.”

What exactly is a “moderate,” for example?  The “left wing” and the “far right”? “Socialism”? “Fascism”?

Are you a “moderate”? Am I? I feel like a “moderate.” But you might think I’m an “extremist.”

If I want  the government to make sure you get effective, affordable health care, does that make me a member of the “left wing”?

And if I also propose free college tuition for your kids, does that qualify me for a”Socialist” label?

If I think our government should make sure no child goes hungry and no grandma lives in squalor, am I an “extremist”?

And if you oppose a woman’s right to an abortion, does that make you a “right winger”? Even if you want government backed health care and free college tuition for all?

If you are a die-hard law-and-order advocate, are you a “fascist”? Even if you support civil rights reforms?

Are gun-rights advocates automatically members of the :far right”?  Even if they also want state-imposed limits on prescription-drug pricing and government run health care?

What exactly is the “Freedom Caucus” in Congress? And why would members of such a group be fighting for immigration legislation that some might call “racist”?

What freedoms are they digging in their heels for? The freedom to arbitrarily limit the freedom of others to seek a better life in another country?

If I oppose immigration policies that seem to shut out some people because of their ethnicity, does that make me a “radical”?

Was the Good Samaritan a “progressive”? And the Levite who passed by without helping the wounded robbery victim, was he a “conservative”? Or a “Libertarian”?

As I ponder the shifting shape of words and phrases in the nation’s political discourse, I am reminded of Hunpty-Dumpty’s explanation in “Alice in Wonderland”:

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wondered out loud:

…if we shall ever grow up in our politics and say definite things which mean something, or whether we shall always go on using generalities to which everyone can subscribe, and which mean very little.

Obviously, we have not grown up. Indeed we seem to be going in the opposite direction.

As the various political factions drift ever-farther apart, some words have assumed meanings specific to the members of one faction or another.

Eventually, I suppose, each faction will have a language of its own, and communication between the factions will become even more impossible than it is today.

Those “socialist” Democrats

More on the “Freedom Caucus”

More on immigration policy

Parable of the Good Samaritan

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for