Lewis Carroll was a master of wordplay and exploiting the ambiguities of the English language. His two celebrated works, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, are timeless classics for many reasons, but Carroll’s ability to walk between the absurd and the insightful is certainly near the top of the list.
One of the most memorable passages from Through the Looking Glass is the conversation that Alice has with Humpty Dumpty. Humpty is something of a self-absorbed prick who appears to be looking for, “a nice knock-down argument,” and he throws words about as if their meaning was completely malleable. Humpty attempts to justify this by suggesting that he should be the master of words, rather than words being the master of him.
But what would it mean to be the master of words? If Humpty truly were his own master, unconstrained by any contemporary understanding of English, he would speak only gibberish and never be able to communicate anything. Language is only meaningful to the degree we agree on what the words mean. No one and nothing, not Humpty or the words we speak, are truly the “master” of meaning. Meaning, to whatever degree it is possible, comes from the processes of human interactions. It is a social construct.
People often have very different ideas about what words mean, but they share enough to allow them to find common ground for an argument or a fight. Conservatives and liberals may have very different ideas about what it means for something to be, “evil” — with conservatives more inclined to see evil as a physical or metaphysical being, the Devil, who takes actions in the material world, while liberals are more apt to see evil as a particularly horrific category of human behavior or the product of systemic failures — but they can still argue about whether or not a particular action is evil. This is because they both agree that evil is something bad.
Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy of language is certainly flawed, but it is only a sarcastic exaggeration of what we all do. Word meaning is an ongoing negotiation between would-be masters. Upon occasion, language may prove sufficient to help bridge the gap between opposing positions, but words can never completely overcome the inborn limitations of the human condition.