It immediately become fodder for comedians and late-night talk show hosts around the country.

You remember it, of course. President Bill Clinton, testifying on videotape in the abuse of power incident usually dubbed "the Monica Lewinsky scandal," answered a specific and potentially incriminating question by saying, "It depends on what the meaning of is is."

Well, now, throughout the current election fiasco in the state of Florida, politicians and pundits, candidates and commentators are not only citing or paraphrasing that famous line, they are also routinely changing or ignoring what used to be the clear meaning of many words in the English language.

For example, when the question arose as to whether Florida's secretary of state could or should extend the statutory deadline of 5 p.m. on the seventh day following the election for counties to report their vote counts, it was discovered that the section of the statute referring to the secretary of state indicated that she "may" extend the deadline in the event of unforeseeable circumstances, such as a hurricane. Immediately, Democrats and reporters (sometimes the distinction was unnecessary) claimed victory for the Gore campaign, since in their minds this clearly obligated the secretary of state to wait as long as necessary for ballots to come in. But that depends on what the meaning of "may" is. To most English-speaking people, "may" means "may," not "must."

Similarly, another part of the statute indicated that if county returns were received after the statutory deadline, the election commission "shall" ignore such returns and "shall" revert to whatever counts were on file. This, too, was vehemently contested, by such luminaries as Warren Christopher and Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley. But that all depends on what the meaning of "shall" is. To most of us, "shall" means "shall," not "may."

And The New York Times, that venerable daily that prints all the propaganda that's fit to print, quoted one Tom Brown, an author of some of Florida's election laws, as saying, "If we are going to allow somebody to request a recount, the intent obviously is that you expect a recount to be included." But, Tom, that depends on what the meaning of "request" is. I think most people familiar with the word at all would agree that "request" means "request," not demand.

And, lately, reporters and commentators have been blatantly playing the Gore campaign's game by referring to an "incomplete" vote count in Florida, despite the fact that all ballots have been counted at least twice in the entire state. Again, that depends on what the meaning of "incomplete" is. To most people who are at all familiar with the word, it means "incomplete," not "unsatisfactory" to one or the other party.

One might tolerate--even expect--such parsing of terms from lawyers, who must sometimes make words mean something different in order to win their way. But what we have here is a war of words, and it's becoming more and more crucial, because when such reinventing of the language stops sounding ridiculous to the public, it signals the deterioration of meaningful communication. When words no longer have meaning, ideas cease to have impact. And as that happens more and more, we will see the erosion of freedom, for it, too, is merely a word, only an idea.

And that, of course, will be bad. . . very bad. . . for all of us, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise. But even THAT, you see, depends on what the meaning of "bad" is.

Copyright © 2001, Bob Hostetler