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Every day between nine and ten am my first semester of college, Dr. Madsen found time to instruct us to pick up our pencils, move to the top of the pages we were writing on, and write in all capital letters: WORDS HAVE MEANING. At the time, it seemed like a frustrated, obvious reminder to write comprehensibly and use the dictionary.

In graduate school, I realized that it wasn’t a simple reminder, but the expression of a theoretical viewpoint. This was his rebellion against Derridean uncertainty, his way of shoring up language against the onslaught of Freshman carelessness, and his plea for stability. If words have meaning, inherently, it matters how we use them; they are, however loosely, tied to truth. If words don’t have meaning, but rather make it or twist it or empty it, they have no relationship to truth. They can’t be trusted, can’t be used as the foundation for anything. They can still be used, but much less reliably. If words have meaning, language is a revolver: you cock it, aim carefully, and fire precisely. If words don’t have inherent meaning, language is a fully automatic rifle: a vague, deadly, scattershot sort of thing.

Lately, the New York Times‘ Opinion page has resembled Dr. Madsen’s emphatic plea for inherent meaning. Several of the Times‘s standard columnists have written articles in which language and its relationship to truth receive a rare kind of attention. Most of these have been in the “Most Emailed” lists lately, which I treat as a snapshot of the current anxieties and hopes of Times readers.

In this time of meaningless babble, crashing stocks, and terrifying uncertainty, this strikes me as a strangely natural response: those of us who are lettered, who are educated, who were taught that words matter, cling to words. We pick up our pencils, our computers, our pens and our voices, and we write, in all capital letters, WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS MATTER. WORDS HAVE MEANING AND THAT MATTERS.

Because if they don’t, we simply don’t know what to do about it. If they don’t, we are impotent. If they don’t, we have to completely rethink how we use them.

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