What does the word origin mean today?
There was a recent post on the blog Science-Based Medicine which discussed the changing meaning of the word organic. I think the author hits the nail on the head, but misses the mark slightly. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?! Let’s dig in.
The post is called “The Word ‘Organic’ Has Been Hijacked” and it talks about the way that companies have been using the word organic to greenwash their products. I don’t doubt that this is true. People are thinking and writing about food that is local, free range, and (yes) organic. But this means that companies see an opportunity to market to people who care about these things, but don’t necessarily have the time to check every label. It’s the same as when a laundry detergent says “Gluten Free” on the bottle.
So author Harriet Hall is right when she says that organic seems to have added a sense. I should start by saying that on the whole I agree with the Science-Based Medicine site. But there are some claims in this post that I think need a bit more context.
First, a point about semantics. Not internet semantics, actual Semantics. Hall writes: “For a meaningful discussion, both parties have to speak the same language and have to agree on the definition of the words they are using.” This is true in the abstract, but the thing about language is that we never really know whether people have the same definitions of words that we do. In almost all cases, people either have the same definition or their definition is close enough that it doesn’t matter and doesn’t come up. But when we have a conversation, we’re kinda just winging it and hoping that people understand us. (Seriously, ask 10 people to define a word and you’ll get 10 different definitions)
Semantic and Pragmatic theory would say that the meaning of words does not come directly from their (dictionary) definitions. Instead, meaning comes from language use and interpersonal context – we as speakers participate in society and social practices and these contribute to the meanings of the words that we use. So language isn’t really about people going around and spouting off facts about the world (mansplainers on the internet excluded)
The things is: Language is context. It is situated in a network of social roles. Consider how we often ask a question by making a statement (This song won a Grammy?), or make a statement by asking a question (Is this your idea of a joke?), or say something that seems to be a fact about the world, but actually means something else (It’s easy to fall over in the dark could mean “Be careful” or “Turn on the lights” or be a metaphor about ignorance, with no meaning of intended action on the part of the hearer). And on and on. What we mean and what people understand is a constant negotiation.
For what it’s worth, these facts about language are almost 50 years old. I say that because Hall mentions what organic meant in her chemistry class in college. Perhaps its time for those in the hard sciences to take a mandatory class in linguistics, especially if they’re going to be using language to practice their science?
Second, a minor point. Hall says that organic “was originally used in chemistry to denote the class of carbon-based compounds found in plants or animals”. This may be how the word was originally used in the field of chemistry, but it’s not how the word was originally used. The OED shows that organic originally meant “Designating the jugular vein”:
In fact, the definition that Hall is talking about didn’t come around until the 1820s. Before that the word was used by none other than John Donne to refer to things resembling a musical instrument.
On second thought, this point might be more important that I originally thought. It shows how much language changes.
Third, Hall explains that organic is a label applied to foods which meet certain farming standards set by the USDA. Hall then gives this story:
The public is confused about the meaning of organic, as demonstrated by a conversation my husband overheard several years ago in a grocery store. Two women were discussing whether it would be safe to buy a cucumber that was not labelled organic. My husband couldn’t help chiming in: he told them that all cucumbers were organic and there was no such thing as an inorganic cucumber.
It’s clear that the people in this conversation are using two different definitions of organic. Hall’s husband is using the chemistry definition, while the women he was talking to were using the USDA’s. I think it’s insincere to point out that there are no inorganic cucumbers when there are clearly cucumbers that are not organic.
Finally, Hall ends with this note:
Words matter. The misuse of the word “organic” has only served to confuse people. Its original meaning in chemistry is clear; its antonym is “inorganic”. I wish Costco would stop calling their product “organic protein”. It would be more precise to call it “protein produced in accordance with current regulations for organic farming”. Meanwhile, I will continue to laugh when I see advertising for “organic” meat, eggs, dairy, protein, or other foods that couldn’t possibly be inorganic.
Hard agree on that first sentence. But I imagine that Costco is following the USDA guidelines with their protein. Or then they’re not and they’re just greenwashing it. But restricting a word to one definition isn’t going to solve this problem. I mean, Costco can always say that their protein is “natural” or “home grown” or something like that.
One last point I’d like to make here. I don’t agree with using a term like “hijacked” to describe language change. Although you may not agree with the direction of some changes in language, no one benefits from using metaphors related to crime when a word adopts a new meaning. Hall may be fighting the good fight here in the name of science, but language is used as a proxy to discriminate against people. This discrimination also happens in medicine and it causes real harm. Using terms like “hijacked” contributes to this culture of discrimination. It implies that someone has done something wrong and dangerous and they should be punished for it. Language change is not wrong. Language change just is.
The semantics example came from Introducing Semantics (2010) by Nick Riemer.
You can find more about discrimination in healthcare based on language at the following two academic articles and two news sources:
Himmelstein G, Bates D, Zhou L. Examination of Stigmatizing Language in the Electronic Health Record. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(1):e2144967. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.44967
Sun, Michael, Tomasz Oliwa, Monica E. Peek, and Elizabeth L. Tung. Negative Patient Descriptors: Documenting Racial Bias In The Electronic Health Record. Health Affairs 40(2). doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2021.01423
Hamilton, Jon. “‘Providers Don’t Even Listen’: Barriers To Alzheimer’s Care When You’re Not White”. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/03/02/972648710/providers-dont-even-listen-barriers-to-alzheimers-care-when-youre-not-white
Early, Janet M. “Do You Trust Your Doctor?” Medium. https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/studies-show-that-americans-dont-trust-doctors-especially-in-marginalized-communities-eda3ea4e436