Words matter, so pay attention to what’s going on around us

Examening the definitions of unicorn, meme, and socialism.

“Words matter.”

This is what I tell my Civics and Government students each quarter. Words matter in regard to law and government but also in society. New words (or existing words that have taken on additional meanings) have appeared that are now part of our culture. I will focus on three of them here: unicorn, meme and socialism. Understanding these words will help us understand the direction of our culture.

Unicorn: There are various definitions. The most common one is the uniting of a narwhale and a horse resulting in an animal with one horn on its forehead. Many little girls are entranced by them. My wife and I gave stuffed unicorns as gifts to two of our granddaughters. They love them.

A unicorn is also described as an extremely attractive woman. There are often strong sexual connotations when used in this context.

Another definition refers to a company that is one of a kind, almost magical in its actions; a start-up that is now worth more than a billion dollars. Or it could be an ideal employee that is sought after but does not exist.

In 2018, there were 7.5 million Instagram #unicorn postings. The word has various meanings for the younger-than-18 set, but it has come to be associated with gay pride by those older than 18 because of the variety of colors in the gay pride rainbow.

Meme: (rhymes with cream): Miriam-Webster gives two definitions: “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” and second, “a discrete unit of knowledge, gossip, joke and so on.”

“The meme enters your mind, changes how you behave, and then finds a way to pass itself on to another person.” (Dictionary.com)

Cat videos are examples of memes. They have gone viral. The fashion of getting man buns is a meme. The proliferation of unicorns and references to zombies are also memes. They have spread rapidly throughout the culture. The Internet has made memes more common.

According to the website “What I Found Out Today: Feed Your Brain,” controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.”

He adapted a Greek word mimeme which means, “that which is imitated.” Dawkins shortened the word to make it seem similar to “gene” because it has a similar function to genes but in a society. Memes are to culture what genes are to life.

Socialism (from Miriam-Webster): 1 – any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods; 2a – a system of society or group living in which there is no private property; 2b – a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

The reason I chose this word is that socialism, as defined above, will play a major part in the 2020 election. It is the accusation of Republicans against progressive Democrats. Socialism is considered the enemy of capitalism which values private property, private profit, and private ownership of factories and businesses.

In reality, while most Democrats favor some forms of socialism – helping the poor and immigrants, for example – the idea that they want to take away capitalists’ property and profit has been greatly exaggerated and twisted for political gain. It has become a pejorative and is a form of name-calling which is based on emotion rather than reality.

Property is protected by two amendments, the fifth and 14th: according to the fifth, no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of the law. Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The 14th adds to these restrictions by clearly limiting the power of a state (as opposed the federal government) from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….”

Streets and roads, schools, local, state and national parks, fire and police departments, the military, Medicare, and Social Security are all forms of socialism. Socialism is not evil in a representative democracy where property is so closely protected.

These three words are popular in our society today because they reflect the spirit or attitude of the times, whether it is cultural or political. Words matter, and if we are aware of their various and often new meanings, we become more aware of what is happening in the world around us.


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