Words are deeds

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty insists that he can mean whatever he wants by a word. If he wants ‘glory’ to mean ‘nice knockdown argument,’ that’s his prerogative. ‘The question,’ Alice replies, ‘is whether you can make words mean so many things.’ ‘The question,’ responds Humpty, is simply ‘which is to be master.’

The irony is that Humpty Dumpty has mastered nothing and is about to become scrambled egg. Language, Alice might have said, is essentially social and operates only by agreement.