Columnists > Judgment Calls

Defining definitions down

When words seem to have no meaning

Issue: "Beating the school rules," Sept. 23, 2000

I am in the business, these days, of disabusing 24-year-old Korean men. They come to me, a parade of them through the revolving door that my house has become since my husband died-all "homestay" sons from Seoul or Pusan, enrolled in the local language academy. They come indoctrinated with their high-school textbook English, and I see my job as resident deprogrammer. They arrive with their proper, correct, na? definitions of words, customs, and manners-and I give them the real scoop. "Andree, please, what it means 'Let's do lunch sometime'?" one will say. And I feel obliged to break the news that the person who addressed those words to him has no intention of seeing him again any time soon, and has just graciously excused himself.

With the election season mantras now flying, penetrating even to the outermost circles of political consciousness, I am waiting for the next big question: "Andree, please, what it means 'family values'?" And what shall I say then? "OK, Tae Hoon, let's deconstruct: a family in modern America is ... well ... whatever.

"And when we say value in America, it means ... uhm ... well it means whatever the person speaking means it to mean. I know that in Korea you probably learned that value was something solid, like a rock-a thing unmovable, immutable. We have another word in America if we want to mean that: absolute. But value is a good bit softer, mushier, has wiggle room."

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I will proceed to illustrate these porous semantic boundaries by enlightening my young charge as to the multipurpose uses of the term value-how the same word employed for moral and ethical matters in one breath is versatile enough to serve commercial uses as well: Four extra ounces of Biz soap powder in the box, for the regular price, is a "great value" in America, with three exclamation points behind it. It's not our fault if we get moral and marketing categories mixed up sometimes.

Like any good teacher, I will offer a current example of family values. The state of New Jersey, just across the Delaware River yonder, is very high on family values-though its people are not quite sure what the words mean either. In August their Supreme Court decided that the alleged right of privacy of a 14-year-old girl is a more important family value than the right of her mom and dad to know she's going to have a baby ripped out of her womb. So you see the problems we're having here, Tae Hoon.

For his English homework, I will perhaps assign T.H. a man-on-the-street survey of my own design. I will be surprised if he reports back even one person who doesn't go on record as valuing life. Speaking from a position of ease and momentary equanimity, a man will rhapsodize grandiosely on the subject. But then you come to find out that when push comes to shove, his principles have more caveats than Swiss cheese: I value life-as long as it doesn't usher from rape or incest; as long as it doesn't potentially infringe on my (psychological) health, my job prospects, my vacation plans; as long as the girl in question isn't too young, too old, too unhappy; as long as there isn't a good chance the baby will have Down syndrome, a better than even chance, a 20 percent chance; as long as I feel like it.

Some value.

My insightful student will draw his own conclusions now, that whatever his pocket Korean-English dictionary says, value in America has become almost synonymous with preference, and the use of it an empty rallying cry. As Merlin noted in Lewis's That Hideous Strength, when all around him communication deteriorated into babble: When you lose the Word of God, you end up losing the word of man.

I had my own family values once. They nearly destroyed my family. The goals and preferences I vowed, in hubris, to implement from my wedding day were a vessel that soon capsized on the choppy seas of marriage and child raising. Only by the grace of God-and the timely intervention of His values-have any of us escaped alive.

Which is why I plan to tell my houseguest-and all his successors-that you have to pull your family values from the Bible, and your resolve from His Spirit, if you really mean business about values. And politicians will have to do likewise if they want to impress this voter. Otherwise, you may as well be talking to me about four ounces extra of Biz in the box.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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