L is for Labels (a PBP post)

This is my first post for the Pagan Blog Project. I’ve never been the most talented of bloggers, so bear with me while I get the hang of this! I was between several L’s for this week – Laughter, Litha, Living the Path, etc. – but eventually chose this topic. Please comment so I can improve!

As a writing major, hopeful future editor, and lover of the English language, words and their definitions have always fascinated me. And while I love all words in some aspect, I have a particular fascination with the idea of labels.

Merriam-Webster provides a total of five definitions of the noun “label”, nine if you count the sub-definitions. Of relevance to this discussion is the following: “3c. a descriptive or identifying word or phrase: as (1) epithet (2) a word or phrase used with a dictionary definition to provide additional information”.

Labels, while they are supposed to be useful in gauging either your own personality or someone else’s, tend to promote misinformation or stereotypes. Take the label of “witch” for example – if you publically call yourself a witch, some people see a Satanist, some people see a wannabe Hermione Granger, and some people see a Pagan who practices magic. The connotations, multiple definitions, and negative stereotypes that are attached to most labels will color both your view of yourself and others’ view of you. People who do not fully do research – or do not know they have not fully done research – further the problem by making assumptions about the labels they use on themselves or hear used by other people.

Personally, I try to avoid labeling myself as much as possible. Some labels I embrace, although they are more readily defined and most relate to fandoms – Potterhead, Whovian, Nerdfighter, words describing my heritage (Irish & Italian).  I am particularly endeared to what John Green said about the definition of Nerdfighters (although I cannot find the exact wording): that the Nerdfighters themselves, through action, word, and thought, create and update the definition of the label. Obviously and unfortunately, this idea of malleability does not apply to many words.

I strongly dislike listing my ethnicity or gender on forms and tests, as I believe it says nothing about me besides societal stereotypes. I used to call myself bisexual, a vegetarian, and a Wiccan. When I realized those were not accurate, I changed to pansexual, pescetarian, and Pagan. Still, these words do not fully describe even those limited aspects of myself. Now, I do not restrict myself with a sexual orientation and I simply say “I don’t eat meat”.

The religious label is far more important to me, but I am not confident I can ever specify what I am besides Pagan, due to debatable and/or complicated definitions of words like “Druid”, “witch”, “pantheist”, and “panentheist”. Dictionary definitions, Pagan discussions of personal understandings, and changing meanings of these labels contribute to my own confusion. To provide some food for thought, below I will list a few definitions of “Pagan” and “Neo-Pagan”.

Pagan:

– From Merriam-Webster: “heathen 1; especially : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)” & “one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person”

– From Dictionary.com: “one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks” & “a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim”

– From Urban Dictionary: “A somewhat vague term derived from from the Latin word paganus. Pagan is a term which refers to a variety of different religions ranging from Wicca, to that of ancient Egypt and even Hinduism, among many others. Some Pagans are of no specific religion, but rather are eclectic. In general Pagan religions have more than one deity, or many gods which are aspects of one (an idea similar to that of the Christian trinity). Another quite common feature of Pagan religions are that they tend to be nature oriented. Pagan can also be used as a derogatory word for any non-Judeo/Christian/Islamic religion.”

vs. Neo-Pagan(ism):

– From Merriam-Webster: “a person who practices a contemporary form of paganism (as Wicca)

– From Dictionary.com: “20th century revival of interest in the worship of nature, fertility, etc., as represented by various deities”

– From Urban Dictionary: “A Neopagan belongs to a religion in the category[sic] of Neopaganism. Neopagans include members of newly created Pagan religions. Neopagans include but are not limited to Wiccans. Their faiths may be current, but they are based on far older religions.”

Although by definition of the “reliable” and “official” dictionaries, I am a Neo-Pagan, I do not identify as such. My personal beliefs do not mesh with either Merriem-Webster’s or Dictionary.com’s ideas of what I am as Pagan or Neo-Pagan. Yet I consider myself Pagan, because the English language changes, and we define those changes. Soon, the traditional definitions of Pagan may be preceded by (archaic), indicating a new, user-driven definition is the one in use. At least for the moment.

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