Dumpty Drop icon Dumpty Drop

If I said, "Abraham Lincoln was a short, blue king of the United States," you would say that's not a true statement. If I then said that to me short describes a person less than seven feet tall, that blue means the same as white, and king refers to anyone who is in charge, you would wonder if I "had lost my mind." In order to communicate with each other we must agree, more or less, on the definitions of words. We shouldn't be a Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty

illustration of Humpty Dumpty on wall

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

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

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!"

"Would you tell me, please," said Alice "what that means?"

"Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. "I meant by 'impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life."

"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

'Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

'Ah, you should see 'em come round me of a Saturday night,' Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: 'for to get their wages, you know.'1

Humpty Dumpty gives new meanings to glory and impenetrability for no good reason. He simply wants to prove that he is their "master." He appears to be insane (or not as sane as the average egg sitting on a wall).2


Not everyone who redefines a word is crazy: for example, President Reagan's administration attempted to redefine ketchup as a vegetable; commercial advertisers misuse language to whatever degree necessary to sell a product or service; and, of course, Ingsoc created Newspeak (1984).

Most of us, however, do not intentionally redefine words.3 Chaos is a useful term that refers to a state completely without order. As far as we know no one deliberately set out to dilute its meaning. On 28 April 2014 the evening news on ABC-TV titled a segment on Ukraine "Chaos explodes in the streets." Chaos has been redefined to mean only "confusion" and then we qualify it: "utter chaos" and "total chaos" and the absurd "a little chaotic" and "organized chaos." This is from The New York Times Magazine: "The crowd for the breakfast gathering was so much bigger than organizers expected that there was near chaos when the coffee ran out."4

Certainly language is dynamic and vocabulary changes. One language borrows from another (magazine, detent, rodeo). The use of some words is deliberately suppressed (authoress and aviatrix). Other words simply cease to be used (eyen, forsooth). New terms are created: email, grok, Catch-22 and Bucky balls. Words can gain additional meanings: a computer now refers to an electronic device as well as someone who performs (mathematical) computations.

However, the unconscious redefinition of words often degrades a language; it become poorer, not richer. The new definitions aren't more precise and the older specific meanings are lost. They don't capture some nuance of meaning but, in fact, broaden and dilute the meaning. They don't refer to some new thing for which a term is needed.

Gridlock refers to the complete inability of traffic to move; the grid is locked; no movement is possible. It's an extreme, rare occurrence. Metaphorically, it can be applied to other situations. The word entered English vocabulary in the 1980s and already its meaning has been so diluted that it's used as a synonym for traffic-jam, impeded and even slowed.

There are several reasons why are words needlessly redefined. Certainly, lack of knowledge is one. Not knowing the definition of literally someone uses it instead of virtually. Another person unfamiliar with the word gets its meaning from the first user's context and also uses the word to mean its near-opposite.5

Another reason is the desire for more emphasis: a term higher up on the comparative-superlative-absolute scale is used. Maybe a commercial advertiser uses unique to stress a product's qualities: product X has a unique ability to clean. Although the word means "one of a kind," "sui generis," "nonpareil," it eventually comes to mean just "very," "different" or "special" and product Y has to claim a "very unique" cleaning ability. The usefulness of the word has been reduced. What does it mean to claim a particular Web site is "rather unique"? Unique has been (unintentionally) misused so frequently that we now need to define it before we use it or resort to using other terms that won't be misunderstood.

illustration of Humpty Dumpty on wall

Recently, the meaning of the word hero has changed in the Unites States. Not too long ago a hero was someone who does something extraordinary, who acts courageously in a situation in which there is some degree of risk or danger (physical, reputational, etc.). But today the word is essentially useless, now only referring to a person with some positive attributes.

First, the term broadened to apply to all members of the armed forces who potentially could be heroic. Almost every city and town celebrated its "Hometown Heroes" with parades and stories on local television and in local newspapers.

Next, anyone who regularly enters situations in which there is some risk became heroes: all police, firefighters, and other first responders. (Although it doesn't appear that the term has been applied to others whose occupations sometimes puts them in more or less dangerous situations: all school teachers and every cashier at a bodega or convenience store.)

Then, it was regularly applied to anyone who accomplishes something special without risk or danger such as women soccer players who win tournaments.

Finally, it was applied to everyone who does anything generally thought to be good or desirable.

Americans are not the only one to erode the meaning of the word: "Women's world cup soccer heroes celebrate with 10,000 fans at rally in LA" (Daily Mail, 7 July 2015). A 2017 article on the Autocar Web site was titled "4X4 heroes." It was not about vehicles that have done something extraordinary such as being used to save lives in difficult or extreme conditions; it was subtitled "the best off-roaders compared" and was a comparison of the off-roading abilities of six vehicles.

Think of a time and a place and a problem -- the efforts to organize labor, the civil rights movements, the battles to depose dictators, and so on. Think of the people who engaged in those conflicts, some losing their lives. Surely, calling those who merely donate to the American Red Cross or their local Public Broadcasting Station "heroes" diminishes the achievements and status of earlier heroes.

Does hero have any usefulness now? What word will we use for those individuals who actually do extraordinary "heroic" things? We can't call them "superheroes" because the term (1) is associated with comic-book characters and (2) is already being used: "Boy fights disease, becomes superhero" (NBC Nightly News, 31 Dec 2016). Maybe "literally unique heroes."

nest with 3 eggs

Defenestrate means "to throw something out of a window." Suppose everyone reading this starts using it to mean simply "to throw out" or even "to throw" as in "I defenestrated the leftovers into the trash" or "I enjoy defenestrating a frisbee with my daughter." How long would it take for the new broader meanings to replace the older specific meaning? It might be an interesting experiment, but it would result in the loss of a good word.

The redefinition of a word for no good reason rarely happens as the result of conscious deliberation; the changed meaning just spreads from someone, somewhere, sometime. The more people who use a redefined word, the more likely we are to hear or read it and, therefore, use it ourselves. Useful words become useless.

When we are tempted to use a word whose meaning we are not sure of, or misuse a word whose meaning we are sure of, we should bring to mind the grinning face of Humpty Dumpty staring down self-complacently from the wall as he reaches down to help us "up" to his level.

Dumpty Drop

game board

At the start of the game all 98 letters of the letter pool are placed on the board in 14 rows of 7 columns. The top row of the board is always empty.

You form words by transferring letters from the bottom row of the board to your tray. The letters in your tray do not have to touch each other, but they have to be in the correct order. For each correct word you earn the sum of the letter-points of each letter and one point for each letter of the word (LINKED = 17 points). Thus, longer words earn more points.

If you use all seven tiles from the bottom row of the board to form a word (sometimes called a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled

game board

When a word is spelled correctly, the letters are removed from your tray and the letters on the board drop down in their columns to fill the empty squares in the bottom row (from which the letters of the word were taken).

The ability to anagram words is important, but strategy is equally important. Because you can see all the letters on the board, you can look ahead many moves to determine roughly when, for example, the Q or Z will appear in the bottom row.

See also

Quick Intro to Dumpty Drop

Drudges Two and Dictionaries

Humor in Dictionaries

Roget's Tree and Thesauruses

Myles' Race and Cliches


1Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, with 50 illustrations by John Tenniel (London: MacMillan and Co, 1872), 124-125.

2"[Republican Mitt] Romney Tells Grandkids Humpty Dumpty Could Have Been Saved By Private Sector," from "Breaking Heads," The Final Edition, www.thefinaledition.com.

3In Andrew Clements' 1996 children's book Frindle fifth-grader Nick Allen creates a new name for a pen -- a frindle. His classmates like the word and its use spreads until eventually it enters the language and is included in dictionaries.

4Russell Shorto, "Water Works," The New York Times Magazine, 13 April 2014, 22.

5An example of a different kind of lack of knowledge is this line from a piece of spam we received from Losing Pounds Network (2 May 2014): "Imagine losing pound after pound by doing literary [sic] nothing!"

6Victor Cifarelli, Andrew Gloag, Dan Greenberg, Jim Sconyers, and Bill Zahner, Geometry (CK-12 Foundation, 2009).