Words as Wisdom

How is our definition of a word related to what it actually categorizes? If you take a hundred people and ask them what being a genius means you’ll get a diversity of answers. Many find it difficult to pinpoint, so alternatively you can ask them who they would count as a genius. Assuming you ask enough people, they’ll end up listing some similar people, but the fundamental meaning being why could be different. A concept like genius isn’t the same as the concept of an apple. One has a real world counterpoint, the other is a social creation. A meter or a gram or a second are all based on real world physical phenomenon. There’s a reference point to compare your results too. Abstract concepts have no basis beyond the human mind.

I’m not attempting silly word play here, I want to get at the substance of how we think. So often we blast through life thinking we can communicate effectively. We blunder around and assume it’s everyone else not understanding us properly. If only I could make one more point, I’m sure they’d believe me. This arrogance doesn’t come from thin air, it’s because we lack an understanding of our medium. The act of talking is given such a bad rap. We see it as ineffective, as being cowardly, or as a recipe for future disasters. Physical actions are when you really get stuff done. Talking is the weak man’s weapon. When you denigrate a skill it doesn’t get studied by people; they don’t teach it to the following generation. We collectively get worse at it.

We’re in no danger of losing our ability to speak, the arguments I’ve heard for that are linguistic arrogance (like saying internet slang is damaging the english language). What we do lose are the nuanced skills inherent in language. Our words have meanings that are assigned by us, but at the same time they arise in a totally organic fashion. One person can’t decide to change the meaning of a word. Until others accept the definition you’re simply misspeaking. You’ll think you’re saying one thing and they’ll understand it as something else. Every word is defined by a staggering number of people, all choosing what the word will mean, but because there are so many, it becomes organic. Like the evolution of an animal in nature.

I support the efforts of some to change our language for the social good. The internet has shown many attempts to remove the antiquated gender binary from casual speech. That’s a good use of meta-language knowledge. It’s guiding our language to make it easier for us to communicate with one another in a way that is relevant to our current lives. Going back to the first word I mentioned, “genius”, it may have it’s own troubles. I read a piece the other day pointing out that when asking the general populace to name people who are geniuses, there’s a racial/gender bias in play. This is just a correlation so it may be due to any number of factors, but it’s worth looking into. Is there a hesitation to call a woman a genius or a non-white person?  When we’re so unaware of exactly what constitutes genius, we’re leaving a grey area where traditional prejudicial beliefs can hibernate and hide from scrutiny.

Being active with structuring ones own words can backfire though. When you’re trying to simultaneously integrate new words into your speech as you’re trying to convince someone of your points, you can fail at both. When the meanings of words get tangled up in the content of speech, you get confusion. One person may be arguing over the what a word “should” mean while the other is wanting to discuss the concept itself. I’ve heard/seen this happen many, many times. Both sides end up butting heads and not understanding each other. Both sides think the other is “crazy” or “dumb”. Neither is true of course, it’s just miscommunication.

Decide what you’re going to argue before you start speaking. If you want to discuss how we use our words, then focus on that. If you want to the real things, then do that. Don’t try to juggling the two topics. You’ll just drop them both.


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