Imagine, if you will, that you are a carpenter, in the years before power tools. Your hammer is your livelihood. Further imagine that every time someone used a hammer incorrectly, the hammer as a tool was degraded. It lost its ability to perform its essential function. When people used it in an incorrect way, somehow, the hammer stopped being as useful to you as it once was. You couldn't use it as efficiently or powerfully as you once did.
Now, wouldn't you be pretty goddamn sensitive about how people are running around, misusing hammers? I imagine you would! If misuse of individual hammers devalued hammers, I mean really devalued them in a physical sense, and you depended on hammers, well... I'm sure the subject of hammer use would be a bit of a sore spot with you. This is precisely the situation those of us who value and treasure language find ourselves in, and this exact kind of degradation through misuse is what Stephen Fry is cheerleading.
Words are communal objects. They are owned by everyone who speaks a given language. Their meaning is not static but fluid, and dependent on how people use them. Never let me say that language's meaning is anything else than socially constructed. Language is always a process. It is never a product.
So why would I object to Fry's "hey, however you want to use it" approach to language? Because as I've said, words are damaged when they are misused; and while "misuse" is entirely a function of perspective, my preference is no less meaningful for my acknowledgment that it is indeed a preference. When a word changes, it changes for everyone, which is why the social construction of language is both a freedom and a responsibility. (Societal responsibility! Imagine that.) Those who would say that a word only has what meaning we give it are correct. The failure lies in thinking that these communal acts of definition must be for the good, or for the right, or should go unquestioned. The fact that I acknowledge the social origins of meaning in no way entails that I have to agree with where society takes meaning. The definitions of words change according to how they are used. But I will keep my own counsel on the efficacy, wisdom and prudence of that change.
Words have value in their ability to distinguish and to discriminate. And they are only ever damaged in one direction: they become more abstracted, more broad, less specific, less forceful, less memorable, less powerful, more middling, less individual. When people misuse "anticipate" to the point where it is identical to "expect," there's nothing to cheer for anyone. Why? Because where we once had two words for two concepts, we now have two words for the same concept-- and no word that means "anticipate". You and I are rapidly losing that wonderful word. In it's place is a vague shell. Irony is a fantastic concept, wonderfully precise. The word "ironic," at this point, is close to having no individual meaning whatsoever. When "ironic" can mean any kind of sort of strange, sort of funny happenstance, we no longer use that word to access a specific and incisive idea.
Go in fear of abstraction, the man said, and I want to. But it becomes harder and harder to do that, when words become a pale mush, when "anything goes" is the rallying cry for language. There are many many more examples out there of words that, once powerful and cutting, have become more dull dross, spooned out to no particular effect whatsoever. (How I mourn you, "literally.") I am not, in fact, one of the carpenters. I'm not paid to write and entertain no particular desire to do so. But I'm an amateur writer, and I care about language, and I want a language that functions as a scalpel, not as a dull axe, capable of only force and not precision. I can have that only insofar as words have specific and individual meanings. These misused words are not being misused in the direction of increased specificity, and once lost, I'm afraid very few of these wonderful words are being replaced by equally specific, and equally valuable, language.
Fry invokes George Orwell, which I find sad and funny. Orwell is perhaps overquoted and referenced these days. But the man knew the consequences of allowing language to lose actual meaning. If words are allowed to be stripped of their specific meaning by misuse, and by the reverse snobbery of faux-populist appeals to letting the people have it the way they want, we'll be left with just more "double plus ungoods", sad shades of poetic and meaningful language.
Do I resist all changes in language? No. Some changes I welcome, some I resist. Again, no one is obligated to agree with me on the preferred direction of word use. I just don't cotton to being told that there is something immoral or phony about believing that I have the right to have an opinion about what kinds of word use are better for language. Let words evolve, but let them evolve in a marketplace of ideas where people are allowed to argue in good faith for one meaning or another. Let people who want to keep the traditional meaning of a word argue so without being attacked with the dull blade of bastard reverse snobbery. I don't trust most people manipulating language for the same reason I don't trust democracy. Most people are no more qualified to craft a coherent and meaningful language than they are to craft a workable civic government. I defy anyone to claim that our evolving language is evolving in the direction of specificity, or discrimination, or clarity. Now, I can't force people to keep the traditional meaning of words, and I wouldn't want to. What I can do, though, is argue that it is better that, say, "literally" means literally, rather than being yet another meaningless intensifier. (He literally took my head off back there!)
But this is what Fry is attacking, and attacking with almost comic self-righteousness. No, to want to preserve a word like "literally," to want it to have its own meaning, to want it to have some specific use and not relegate it to the status of any dozen of other words that can intensify or enlarge, why, that must only be the act of a "semi-educated loser." No one who genuinely cared about language could want to work to preserve traditional meanings, no. No one could think that perhaps there is value in the way certain words have usually been defined.
Fry's line is self-aggrandizement masked as populism, a pious attack on piety, pretension sold as criticism of pretension. I disagree with many people on how language should proceed into the future. I wouldn't pretend, like Fry does, that there is something inherently elitist or malign in someone arguing a meaning that I don't agree with. Fry has resorted to the most juvenile mode of argument, attacking what he perceives to be the people making an argument, rather than the argument itself. Well, I'll keep pushing back, because I think violence is done to language when it is drained of meaning to the point where words are sad, gray, limp facades. I'll keep pushing back because I want words that mean something beyond a vague direction like "good" or "bad" or "pretty" or "ugly". I'll keep pushing back because I want both "huge" and "gargantuan," and I want them to have their own individual meanings, because if they mean the same thing then that is one less tool I have in my shed. I do like to play with words, actually, I just don't want to play on exactly the terms Stephen Fry wants to, and I won't allow him to pretend (as people so often do) that his insistence that there are no rules isn't just his way of leveraging rules that he prefers himself.
Update: I'm not arguing that language doesn't change. I'm arguing that Fry is using the fact that it changes as a way to leverage a particular vision of language and act as though that's an inevitable consequence of the social origin of language. This is one of the problems of postmodernism: very often, people arguing that there is no authority is really just another tool to invest themselves with authority. Thus, again, the Sultan says "Am I Sultan or am I Sultan?" In doing so he subjects the old rules about who can marry the sultan's daughter to a postmodern critique, but in a way that reinforces his power as sultan-- a power derived entirely from tradition, from social construction. Never mistake the postmodern project for being inherently liberating.
The fact that it is true that much of our ways of knowing are social constructions doesn't change the fact that the people who say they're social constructions are often doing so because it helps them assert control over others. The will to power is an excellent adapter.