Used By All, Understood By None? An Ode To The Word ‘International’


International. What a word. And a popular one at that. Nowadays everything wants to be international. Universities and schools pride themselves in being ‘International’. Terrorism can no longer be just that. No, it has to become international terrorism. I confess that I (embarrassingly) went through a phase of deeming myself to be not from one place, but rather ‘International’. It seems such a simple word at first, easily defined. But when you look closer, the edges are blurred and you can never seem to pin it down. It is neither long or short, serious or funny, good or bad. It is an adjective that has been stuck in front of most nouns and thrown around carelessly in the assumption everybody understands what it means. I, for one, haven’t got a clue.

As a dutiful English student I consult a dictionary to help me out. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it describes something ‘existing, occurring or carried on between nations’, much corroborated by the Cambridge Dictionary defining it as ‘involving more than one country’. The crucial insight these definitions give us is that the word relates to occurrences between a multitude of nations or countries. Whilst crucial, this revelation doesn’t really help us on our quest for the true meaning of the word.  We all know words take on different meaning, become bigger than themselves or what the dictionary prescribes them to be, as simple definitions are missing out on the richness lent to words through connotations.

Thus we must delve deeper. The word comes in two parts, so we might as well look at them individually before putting them back together. The first part, ‘inter’, opens the floodgates of the mind to related words like ‘internet’, ‘intersection’, ‘interact’ and ‘interbred’. All meaning quite different things, the obvious unifying feature is that they refer to things engaging with each other. The crux of the first part of the word thus appears to be connectivity.

Looking at the context of the modern world, it explains why ‘international’ has become so popular. Defined by modern technology and communication, so often depicted in the inspired image of a net of lights forming across the globe, connectivity is undeniably an integral part of today. It explains why so many people connect languages, cultural exchange and the internet with the word ‘international’. So clearly taking up a vast space in our daily lives, it is often taken for granted and ignored. Which is exactly why we need to take the time to understand and appreciate it.

The second part is the one I struggle with: ‘national’. For what, precisely, does that even refer to? It could mean the people who compose it, the institution that represents it or the culture that shapes it. Each of these are complex elements in themselves and how can they be unified within a single word? Particularly people and cultures are so varied I simply cannot accept the idea that they can be lumped together as one. Consider all of the socioeconomic, class and racial differences within a nation, let alone the multitude of cultures a unique comingling of factors creates. It would be impossible to say that a nation represents simply one viewpoint or objective.

Perhaps it doesn’t have to, not even in the context of the word ‘international’. Perhaps, precisely such distinctions allow us to appreciate the true complexity of the word. It allows us to understand how bonds and communication are possible across nations. Exactly because each nation is composed of various races, gender, sexual identities, cultures, classes (I could go on for a while, but you get the point) they each have people with shared viewpoints, hardships and objectives. Thereby channels of understanding can develop and ultimately bonds and bridges can be formed. Whilst there are clearly significant and overarching differences between nations, a sense of gradation and connectivity rather than separation forms.

No wonder the word has been used to add glamour to many a company, university or political institution. The first instinct is to connote the word with positivity. I mean, how on Earth could something that connects viewpoints and objectives of different nations not be great? I suppose we must consider that it depends on what viewpoint and objective we are talking about. Clearly the word imbues a powerful tool, but what it is connected to ultimately defines whether this power is used for good or for bad. Just as it can ensure the spread of improvement and progress, connectivity between nations can increase threat and uncertainty; the most obvious current example being things such as GMOs, weapons and terrorism.

Nonetheless, this all adds to the magnificence of the word. Just as the emergence theory in ecology states that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, this word grows larger than its parts when you realise that all of the separate meanings and connotations connect, function cyclically and rely on each other. Just like the world it is very much a part of, the word ‘international’ is itself multi-faceted, complex, and above all beautiful.

[Kirsty Campbell]

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