Words should be concrete ideas. That’s how communication works, we say one thing and we expect that our audience will understand what we mean because words have distinct meanings. Language is a socially agreed upon construction. We all agree that the words on this page mean what they do simply because that’s the social norm.
As this semester draws to a close, I’ve received numerous emails and postcards from AU about commencement. My final year here has been absolutely wonderful. I’m not even being hyperbolic; AU has been a tremendous place and my readership in this space has exceeded my greatest expectations for a column about language and rhetoric.
As I was reading one of these flyers I was stuck by a memory: bagpipes at some early hour. It was the beginning of my freshman year and I was fresh and full of anticipation. I dragged my roommates down to the amphitheater that morning to see President Kerwin speak; it was my first real college event.
Commencement, they called it.
Another commencement is coming in a few short weeks, but this time for a very different reason.
There’s a school of literary theory called “deconstruction.” Jacques Derrida is one of the theorists who made the theory what it is, and in one of his seminal texts, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida brings forth the idea of what he refers to as “the pharmakon.” Pharmakon is a Greek word that means both “medicine” while also referring to “poison.” One word means one thing and its own direct opposite. Medicine and poison together. Opposites in the same place in just nine simple letters.
Derrida’s main point is much larger than this simple example when it comes to his thoughts on the very nature of language, but this example is powerful nonetheless. We are all familiar with words having multiple meanings, but two words meaning the exact opposite? That certainly is something that deserves attention. All you would have is context to truly understand what pharmakon means, and choosing the wrong definition could have life-threatening consequences.
Which brings me back to commencement. What I did on one of my first days at this University and what I will be doing on my very last. One word. Two very different definitions. The beginning of something and the end of something.
The definition of commencement meaning “beginning” came first in around A.D. 1250, but it’s only about 150 years later that commencement begins to mean “the end” as well.
It’s almost fitting for college students for this word to have two opposite meanings. It’s the end of our time at AU, but it’s also the beginning of the rest of our lives, if I can say that without sounding too cheese.
But how does that even happen? How can a word evolve to mean two completely opposite things in the same space?
I wish I had an answer for that, as it’s questions such as this one that keeps lit majors around the world up at night.
But I don’t. The only thing I do know from this example is that language is fluid. It evolves and changes and grows. Words can end up meaning very different things to different people.
We think we know what words mean, but how can we really ever know? How can we ever really know anything if our words can mean the opposite of what we mean them to?
If I casually invite my friend to commencement, not giving them specific dates or times, will they come in May or September? Unless I tell them specifically either option would be a correct interpretation of my invitation.
This concept might sound completely out there and I’ve only provided two examples, but if you listen closely, you’ll begin to hear the pharmakon. Words don’t always mean what we think they mean to others. Poison and Medicine. Beginning and Ending.
Morizio is a double major in CAS and Kogod.
Correction: This column incorrectly states that the ceremony for incoming freshmen is called “commencement.” It’s called “convocation.”