There’s a lot of passionate argument about whether “Critical Race Theory” should be taught in schools. But the meaning of CRT differs greatly depending on who you talk to. What did CRT originally mean, and what does it mean now? What are our children actually being taught? And why do some terms tend to become so thorny over time? Click play to find out.
JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and we need to talk about something.
WORD MEANINGS CHANGE OVER TIME
As I often do, I'm going to start from way outside and then I'm going to zero in. As you'll see, that is a general process that I consider very central to the passage of people and things and words through time. We need to talk about something. So let's start with something like audition. We all know what an audition is. You're picturing somebody nervous on stage. Think about what that word, quote unquote, should mean. The aud is about hearing. The reason that we say audition is because the original idea was that you would listen to someone recite something. Now, it was a natural drifting that you would go from someone reciting something on a stage or in a performance to someone playing an instrument or even someone doing a dance, something that doesn't involve sound at all. It could be a mime these days who auditions, but it started out being about hearing someone say something and then it changed. Words’ meanings change. No one today would say: How dare you use the word audition for dance? What's happening to language? Nobody says that because we all know that words don't always mean what they mean, that the form is often different from the content and that's just the way it is.
Lewd. Lewd used to mean that you were unlearned. It meant that you didn't know things. Now, no one who knows that says, how dare you imply that those people aren't intelligent, when what you're really talking about is issues of morality and sex or whatever lewd is about. You know, you can learn that it used to mean unlearned, but you don't wish that it still did. There isn't a sense that it's wrong that unlearned drifted into meaning that you can't keep your pants up or something like that.
One more, to get a little closer to what we need to talk about. Democratic, and no, I don't mean Greece. I mean the party here in the United States. Democratic once stood for very different things than it does now. Most of us know that Democrats were the party of segregation, for example. There's actually, there's a silly book, and I'm not going to name who wrote it or what the book's title is, because many of us write silly books now and then. I have once or twice, but a silly book that was basically saying that Black people need to stop voting Democratic so much because Democrats have often been quite racist in the past. And this meant things like the fact that Woodrow Wilson, you know, who was a straight up racist, that he was a Democrat, that Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black to the Supreme Court and he had been an ex Ku Klux Klan member. All those things are true. But, you know, we think to ourselves, whatever racism we might find in the Democratic Party today, when we're talking about Wilson or what FDR’s priorities were, we're talking about a very long time ago. As history moves along, as conditions change, the parties change. What a Democrat is today is very different from what a Democrat was in 1920. Just like certainly being a Republican now is quite different from what it was in, say, 1865. So words’ meanings change over time. The sequence of sounds comes to refer to different aspects of this vale of tears called life than it once did, right? OK, we all know that. We've got that.
WORD MEANINGS TEND TO NARROW WHEN THEY CHANGE
Words’ meanings don't only change, they often get more specific. They narrow. But it's not always about value, just they get more specific. It starts out gen