I sometimes think we under-estimate words. To say of someone “S/he’s all talk” is to dismiss them, see them as armchair generals, sofa socialists, full of empty verbiage. That’s one interpretation of words and their use. The other is that they give us a toe-hold on reality and help us on our way to climbing it.
Take “Liberty” for instance. I saw the word on the front of The Guardian newspaper recently, offering different views on Liberty by people like Edward Snowden, Julian Barnes and Rosie Boycott. When I got inside to read, I found they were talking about the organisation Liberty, formerly The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) The organisation is 80 years old and the paper was marking the occasion by providing the thoughts of a selection of public figures. I suppose it could have been worse: it could have been the fashion house Liberty they were referring to. However, all appeared to consider liberty in internal terms; none appeared to consider how the actions of one country could limit the right to self-determination (that is, liberty) of another.
The other word that caught my eye in recent days was ‘revisionist’. In his book about Ireland 1912-22, Professor Ronan Fanning identifies two kinds of revisionism in the writing of history. For some it means “no more than revising our knowledge of the past in accordance with new evidence unearthed or old evidence revisited”; for others it’s a matter of rewriting history, not as it was, or as they have been taught it was, but as they would prefer it to have been. He quotes Bernard Lewis, a respected historian on the Middle East, who argues that “those who are in power control to a very large extent the presentation of the past and seek to make sure that it is presented in such a way as to buttress and legitimise their own authority”.
Could there be two more important words? And could there be two words which have been more abused? All-talk, far from being impotent, controls as well as reflects all-think and all-act.