Any good descriptive linguist will tell you that words aren’t defined by the dictionary; they’re defined by the communities who use them. Consequently, a word like “preside” doesn’t necessarily mean, in the context of Mormonism, what a general-use dictionary says it means. While its secular/worldly/dictionary definition might be “to exercise authority or control”1 or some such, in Mormonism, it actually means “to be the seat of the authority while also being equal to everyone in a non-hierarchical authority structure, and maybe also have veto power,” or some such.2
(That was my fascist nonsense buzzer going off.)
Yes, if you’ve been playing along at home, what you’ve heard is true: Language changes, semantic spaces shift, and different words adopt different meanings in communities that have different uses for them. This last is especially relevant to Mormonism, where we’ve developed a whole vocabulary of words with specialized meanings to describe the institutions, concepts, constructs, and experiences unique to Mormonism: testimony, sacrament, mission, tabernacle, calling, Primary, investigator, and so, so many more. It’s certainly totally possible for the word “preside” to have a specialized sense in the language community of Mormonism, which would not necessarily correlate to what the word means according to any standard dictionary of English.
However, not this meaning, and not in this way.
First off: words adopt specialized meanings in specific language communities, but not often wholly different meanings. That is, the way the word is used in the given community does not usually depart from the basic meaning associated with the word by the broader base of language; instead, it comes to apply to in more restricted context. Witness our specialized sense for “investigate”: we still mean “inquire into,” but we’ve specialized it to mean “inquire into the Church, usually by way of the missionary lessons.” When we say “Primary,” we haven’t gotten rid of the meaning “first” or “foundational”; we’ve just specified that it’s first within the series of block-meeting classes we’ll attend throughout our lives, and/or where we learn the foundational doctrines of the gospel.
It’s unusual for a word to whole-hog up and about-face its whole meaning in this specialization process, partially just because that’s not how language change works in general — semantic spaces expand and contract all the time (“cniht” was a word for any young man, not just one with armor and a horse, while the word “cool” as a slang term originally only applied to a specific range of jazz techniques, rather than anything someone approves of), but they tend not to just invert. But to get from the dictionary definition of “preside” to the apologetic one proposed above, you’re not just specializing; you’re reversing the meaning. Out in the world, “preside” means being in charge, having authority, ruling over stuff, taking control, but here in the church, it means . . . not being in charge? Language change just doesn’t swing that way.
Second: language change tends to work ground-up, not top-down. L’Académie française has, notoriously, tried really hard to convince French speakers that l’email is not a French word, (preferring the Frenchier courriel), but to no avail. No one cares what language authorities think; they care what language speakers around them are doing, and most of the other French-speakers around the French-speakers say l’email. No matter how much breath was expended telling us all not to call ourselves Mormons, most of us went right on calling ourselves Mormons, until the Church capitulated to popular usage and purchased mormon.org. Top-down legislation and language-planning can certainly influence language change, but very rarely directs it as directly as the top-down legislators would like it to.3
If the word “preside” had naturally evolved a secondary inverted meaning because of its use in non-presidey (in terms of the broader/dictionary definition) ways, then I would believe that that definition, unusual though the shift toward it be, could stick. Instead, we have GAs and apologists (and GAs acting as apologists) insisting that “preside” means something different from what we think it does, working to convince us of this, which if it were true for our language community, we would already know, because we would all be using it that way. The very fact that we have this argument over and over again all over the Bloggernaccle is evidence that there is not a general ground-level intuition for a specific Mormon sense of the word. And the fact is (though working out how this would look in practice would be a whole ‘nother can of blog-post), if those GAs and apologists really, really truly want to change what the word “preside” means for the Mormon language community, they need to stop just telling us what it means (or doesn’t mean), and start actually using it differently.
But that seems hard. I suspect it would be more efficient to scrap it altogether and move on to “glack,” while we still have the window to make it mean whatever we want it to mean.
- preside, v. OED, 3rd edition, March 2007; <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/150739> [↩]
- This is really my best attempt at defining “preside” according to the most apologetic, non-in-charge definition I can come up with. If you have a better one, have at it, but you’ll also have to have-at whether it changes the way I’m analyzing the term’s deployment, below. [↩]
- Similarly, first they told us we can’t call it in Homemaking anymore, because it’s Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment; then said tell us we couldn’t call it Enrichment anymore, because it’s just a plain-old Relief Society meeting, but the fact is that “Relief Society meeting” already refers to something else, and so people just go right on calling it in Enrichment, though often with the caveat that they know they’re not supposed to call it that. [↩]
- 29 May 2012