I Can’t Tolerate This Tolerance

May 12, 2006

No one has hurt the English Language, and therefore our culture, more than Humpty Dumpty. No, I am not speaking of his fall off the ledge (though I wonder if his larger contribution counts as that also) but rather his famous saying in “Through the Looking Glass”. He has this little conversation with Alice:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather 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.’

This points out the perilous possibilities inherent in language used by humans: We want to be masters of words, shaping them to mean only what we want them to mean. The peril lies in communicating with others. If our words were meant for, and aimed at, ourselves only, then we would do no real harm in maintaining our personal ignorance. But when we communicate with others, the meaning of words must maintain some level of constancy or no one will know what another is trying to say.

I can’t tolerate this any longer. And the Humpty Dumpty metamorphosis that drives my “intolerance” of this practice is — Tolerance.

Tolerance has come to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Primarily, it is a passive-aggressive (or sometimes very active-aggressive) mechanism for deflecting criticism from one’s chosen opinions or actions. For instance, if I choose to dress up in women’s clothing and parade in the street wearing this, and I am ridiculed for my actions, I can hoist the banner of “tolerance” up the flagpole and expect that all ridicule will cease. “You must be tolerant of my choice” I proclaim to all. But can the word “tolerant” tolerate such a use?

It seems it may. At least, the more dictionaries become collectors of words instead of instructors of word use, we may have no choice. Dictionaries used to be places where you could seque from arguments and find the authoritative answer to a question over word meaning. If Funk and Wagnalls said it was so, it was so. If Merriam-Webster pontificated, the rest of us bowed down. But now, instead of giving the definitive meaning of words, dictionaries have bowed to public pressure and include all of the meanings that could possibly be applied to a word. In other words, dictionaries are listening to all the Humpty Dumptys out there because they need to sell their wares.

An older dictionary (and therefore more reliable in my mind) has defined “tolerate” this way:

put up with something or somebody unpleasant; “I cannot bear his constant criticism”; “The new secretary had to endure a lot of unprofessional remarks”; “he learned to tolerate the heat”; “She stuck out two years in a miserable marriage” [syn: digest, endure, stick out, stomach, bear, stand, support, brook, abide, suffer, put up]

A much newer dictionary adds this to the above meaning:

  1. To allow without prohibiting or opposing; permit.
  2. To recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others).
  3. To put up with; endure

Notice that the meaning above has now been relegated to number three on the list. This is not just an idle mistake by a lexicographer (look it up!) but a deliberate decision to line up with current usage more than accepted usage.

Look at the older definition for a second. In essence, to tolerate means to allow something you don’t agree with to exist without trying to destroy it or treat it with contempt. If I tolerate something, the inherent idea is that I definitely don’t agree with it and really don’t want it to take up too much of my life and space. But the second definition says that tolerance means I must allow something without opposing. That makes no sense whatsoever. There are some perfectly good words already in the English language for that definition: endorse, approve, bless or certify.

I would hope no one would endorse, approve, bless or certify my choice of a bra, panties and party dress, no matter how well the garment matches my eyes. I see no point in people pelting me with rotten vegetables for my choice, but neither should they honor me and tell everyone what a courageous and noble person I am for parading around so noticably.

Our society can be great if we recognize that people will make choices we don’t agree with, and that we will not persecute them for those choices. But if asked, I will certainly tell them why I don’t agree with their choice, what consequences I see ahead for their choice, and why I don’t want to honor their choice.

Today that would be called “intolerant”. I want an older dictionary.



  1. Thanks for your comments, but the image of you in women’s clothing marching with a sign….I’ll never sit in church looking at you while you preach the same again. Now excuse me….laughing too hard….must go!

    No, you’re absolutely correct on this issue. It’s just like the definition of the word freedom. Freedom used to mean the right to do what I OUGHT to do, now it means the right to do what I WANT to do. We’ve lost the sense of duty, responsibility, discipline and the fact that real freedom comes from self abnegation and hard work in the new p.c. definition.
    You could also throw in a boatload of other words. Some crazies say that, for example, since Jesus was loving (a redefinition of the word love) that he would accept all people. He does accept all people-thank God! But he doesn’t look at every abberant behavior as equal and tolerable.

  2. Your point is well-taken…my legs would not stand the scrutiny of cross-dressing…neither would my wife.

    Also, your point about the word “accept” is valid. Acceptance and toleration are different concepts. We tolerate the actions of a little child when they do not know better. We accept the actions of a child when they do right. We correct the actions of a child when they do wrong and instruct them on how to do right. Acceptance, toleration and instruction are all attitudes of love…but they are not identical reactions.

  3. Funny, I was just reading “An Apology for Latin and Math” by Cheryl Lowe (Memoria Press) where she makes the following statement when comparing the study of Latin to the study of English:

    “English doesn’t follow the rules. The Romans were disciplined and their language marched in columns, row after row like soldiers. English is lax and loose, bending and changing wherever it fits our fancy. We are an independent, liberty-loving people , and our language shows it. The language influences the character of the people of a nation- and likewise is influenced by it.”

    This lax and loose attitude can make it very difficult to communicate. The more our nation heads towards self -focused “rights” the more lax is the use of our language in order to please self.

    (Picturing you in a dress brings Klinger to mind! How well can you walk in heels? – No, actually, I don’t want to know.)

  4. Very cool design! Useful information. Go on! » » »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: