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Strictly Speaking

Say What You Mean

CLEAR

When applied to materials, clarity is defined as the property that allows the image of an object seen through it to pass sufficiently free of distortion that the transmitted image remains recognizable in shape and apparent size, and undistorted in relative proportions. In all particulars but one, clarity is equivalent to transparency. What clarity does not necessarily mean is what most people now intend when they use the word “clear.” And that commonly omitted property is colorlessness.

And object or medium can meet all the criteria required to be clear and still be colored. In seeing the world through rose colored glasses, it is very much the world that others see through conventional colorless eyeglasses except in being shaded to the preference of the wearer. All sunglasses are by necessity clear. Were they not our eyes could not receive the objects that we need to see in order to walk, drive, apply sun block, stare at babes, check out whether the babes think our shades are cool, check out whether any babe is looking back at all.

Politicians are fond of adding emphasis by making the claim “crystal clear,” perhaps referring to Waterford crystal stem ware, which is, unfortunately, richly faceted, a property that results in diffraction rather than undistorted transmission. And Venetianglassl, which clear in the sense of transmitting objects undistorted, is often beautifully colored, and like any article colored for the purposes of added effect, does not allow the transmission of an image that is identical to the objected viewed in the absence of the interposing medium.

As it is now misused in describing products like caulks and plastics, one needs to specify both clear and colorless in order to express what most users now call clear. If this argument has reached you undistorted and intact, its meaning will be clear, even if necessarily colored by a scientist’s need for exact expression.

Finally, the word “clear,” like many other words in the English language, has several meanings, each of which is usually exposed by the context in which it is used. As it relates to sound, clarity means that the acoustical content (pitch, volume, meter, time, fundamental overtones and other aspects) arrives at the listener’s ear as if the listener were sitting at the source of the sound. This means that the medium in which it travels is uniform and transmitting (as even water does better than air), that it is not degraded by other louder sounds, or by badly placed reflectors or absorbing surfaces.

There is in a room at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland where a point source of sound is located at the exact center of the room. The walls of the room are packed in acoustically absorbing materials so efficient that the source’s sounds never reflect or echo. They merely and purely transmit outward in concentric compressions and rarefactions of air. What is heard by a human listener in this room is sound so starkly pure that it is truly austere. And so if the richness of sounds depend to some extent on imperfections, so much the more reassuring. None of us is perfect.
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