“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Two nights ago, Eve and I were hosting a book signing event in Bellingham, Washington. We usually do Q&As at these events, and invariably get some really interesting questions. At Bellingham, one of our readers asked us our impressions of the language and jargon that’s grown up around polyamory.

I have always had an avid interest in language. In fact, I majored in linguistics for a while during my misspent college days, before I switched to neurobiology. (Given the path my life ended up taking, I probably should’ve stuck with linguistics.) For about the last ten years, I’ve been watching with fascination how the poly community uses language. I’ve been documenting what I’ve seen on the More Than Two glossary page, which has become the largest glossary of non-monogamy on the Web.

Unfortunately, that means every so often someone will point to a word someone else is using and say something like “That’s not what that word means! That word means this thing over here! I know because that’s what it says on the More Than Two website!”

In some ways, that might be because this site has been around long enough, and spoken in ways that resonates with enough people, that some folks see it as a kind of authority.

But the practice of polyamory is still new enough, and the formal study of polyamory still uncommon enough, that there really aren’t any authorities. A great deal of what you’ll find here can reasonably be called what we refer to in the book as anecdote-based polyamory. We’re all experimenters, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. As we explore this way of relating, the language we use reflects the different approaches we all take to this grand experiment.

So I must, if I am to remain in good conscience, regretfully decline the position of The Guy Who Tells Everyone How It Is. While I feel I put a great deal of thought into the way I use language, I am neither able nor (if I am honest) particularly willing to tell everyone else what to do. Especially with regard to semantics.

As you read articles on this blog and this site, and especially our book, you will notice that we (I, my partner Eve, and other people we share this space with) are careful to be descriptive rather than prescriptive in our use of language.

For example, when we talk about hierarchy, we’re aware that the word is loaded. To some people, it means a prescriptive structure: a primary set of folks, usually a couple, determine in advance that everyone else must be secondary partners. To other people, it can be used descriptively: some people choose to be primary, or tightly entwined, or live-together partners; other people choose to be more casual, more “secondary-style” partners; but nobody has assumed the power to tell others “you must be secondary because I said so, and that’s the way it will be.”

What, then, do we do when we use these loaded words?

Describe what we mean by them.

For instance, in the book, we say:

Some people use the word hierarchy whenever one relationship has more commitments or responsibilities than another—for instance, members of a long-married couple with a house and kids becoming involved with a friend-with-benefits. This is not how we are using the word hierarchy in this book. When we talk here about a hierarchy, we mean a very specific power dynamic: where one relationship is subject to the control of someone outside that relationship.

This is not, as you can probably glean from this passage, our attempt to tell you how to use the word hierarchy. Instead, it’s our way of letting you know how we are using the word, to help avoid confusion; if you’re not using the word the same way as we do, then the bit that follows isn’t about you.

Communication relies on shared language. Without that, it fails. There are two important parts to communication: the speaking bit and the listening bit. It is important for us to be clear about how we’re using the words we’re using, and what we mean by them…but it is just as important for us to listen. When someone says “I am using this word in this way,” we must be able to hear what they say.

For example, let’s look at the particularly contentious word veto. A lot of people use this word in a lot of different ways. Some people use the word to mean something like “a unilateral, non-negotiable way to end another person’s relationship.” Other people speak of “veto” when they mean “a way to start a conversation about whether or not a relationship will continue.”

So it’s important if someone says “we have veto” to explain what that means; for example, “We have veto, which means if I object to my partner’s other relationship, I can talk to him about it.” But it’s just as important to listen to how others use the word. If you have a principle, as I do, that you won’t get involved with folks who have the unilateral-non-negotiable variety of veto, it’s not really useful to hold that definition of veto when someone else says “I have a veto, but it’s the beginning-negotiation variety.” If you refuse to listen, and say, “Well, you’re telling me you have a unilateral, non-negotiable say in your other partners’ relationships!” then communication has failed…but it hasn’t failed because of her!

Words have great power, and there’s power in being the one who gets to define them. Yet not even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are invested with the authority to tell other people how to use language. Dictionaries, properly used, describe language, and when the language changes, so does the dictionary. I may object to the new definition of the word literal that means “figurative,” but the tide of usage is against me, and nobody stands against the tide. (Ambrose Bierce defined the word “dictionary” as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.” He would, I suspect, be happy to see dictionaries that bend to the use of language, rather than the other way around.)

If you find the words written on this site or in the book useful–or, more importantly, if you find the ideas here useful–awesome! But if there’s one thing you can do to start improving communication to good effect and with immediate payoff, it’s this: when you use a word that’s ambiguous in meaning, or has many meanings, explain how you’re using it. Don’t tell others how they should use it; that way lies madness. And listen when someone tells you how they are using it; hear what they are trying to say to you, without overlaying your own meaning–a hallmark of passive communication.

If we all make an effort to explain what we mean by the words we use, and listen when another tells us, we can all communicate just a little bit better.


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