Still mulling about how language changes and whether or not I agree with Emerson:
“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well, maybe not the tropes’ poetic origin but the words’ cultural origin. Their social origins, because language is inherent in human culture–we must communicate to survive. And if that means language includes words with violent origins or male hierarchical origins or race supremacist origins or nationalistic origins, the words cannot so easily be erased. We use them as they are, regardless of their nasty backgrounds, tropes and metaphors and all. An accretion of meanings alters the words as cultures evolve and change.
That doesn’t mean we should not critique or examine our words.
In a decade or two, terms change. Jargon, technology, politics, culture all exert forces on how we say what we mean. Here’s an example from my own experience as a creative writer. I wrote a poem in 1983 (published in a journal I cannot at the moment recall), a poem about yearning, in which the speaker observes a male-bodied person who dresses as a female. In 1983, the most respectful word to use for such a person was “transvestite.” Hence the title I chose for the poem: “Transvestite on the Long Island Ferry, July.”
Perhaps the person in the poem was not transvestite but transgender (though that was very rare in 1983)–or “gender-fluid.” In my poem, the observer/speaker uses the pronoun “she.” The observer can only speculate and does so on the speaker’s terms. Without the word transvestite in the title, the poem could be more generally understood–as, say, an older speaker watching a young female.
As the writer of this poem, I’m not going to revise its terminology; but I might change the title if I were ever publish it in a collection (this poem, nearly 40 years past its composition, has not appeared in any of my books). Given that, here it is–with a change in title and nothing else. What do readers think?
On the Long Island Ferry, July She leans against the deck rail, her red dress an amaryllis in a khaki sea. I notice she is unfamiliar with the problem of holding a dress down over her backside while keeping the wide white sunhat in place— and what to do with the matching bag? That kind of awkwardness marks her as an amateur. I think, she wants womanliness like in the movies— La Dolce Vita, maybe— she hasn’t learned, yet, about women. I could laugh at her impression, but I understand her longing. She stays at the rail, struggling to enjoy flirtation, the barfly wind pestering her relentlessly, Hey honey, wanna go out? Boozy breezes disarrange her hair, grab at her panties, try steering her to a quiet corner. But she stays put. I sympathize with her need to drink in the restless waters of the Sound, feeling new in her body: bright, swirling, real. I watch her from Bridgeport to Long Island with a kind of envy, unable to recall the last time I longed for anything so completely.