This month’s column is about the magic, majesty and meaning of words.
One of my favorite books is Lewis Carroll’s “Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” (and even before The Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick immortalized it in the 1967 rock song “White Rabbit” and the Hippy movement adopted the book as a prescription to expand their minds by eating psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens). Among many other things, Through The Looking-Glass gave Professor Carroll, an English theoretical mathematician and logician, a chance to marvel at the wonder of the English language:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “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?” Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
Years later as a law student in Washington D.C., I had one of many occasions to reflect back on Humpty Dumpty’s comments in Through The Looking-Glass. That morning, I picked up The Washington Post newspaper and noticed a front page story reporting the conclusion of a decade-long epic legal battle in the food industry. The industry, as it turned out, was trying to classify, for advertising purposes, what a Pringle was. Was it a “Potato Chip”, as its manufacturer argued with hope (given the GREAT popularity of what was an emerging billion dollar a year chip industry (not to be confused with semi-conductor chips…although that industry was also emerging, but went poorly with guacamole and salsa))? Or was a Pringle something else, as the rest of the potato chip industry argued fearful that the Pringle might set the standard…
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