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Strictly Speaking

Junk Words, Part 2

No social advantage is conferred by learning words that few understand. In a completely modern sense, even in crowds involving an expanding demographic, the ability to belong, or to be invited or accepted into the tribe, depends upon avoiding the primatological stigma of seeming to be the Other.

Currently, the conversational range of familiar tribal noise is extremely narrow. As in nature, when the diversity of DNA within a species narrows, the possibility of mass extinction increases. Approaching this asymptote, the din of tribal noise rises. Any words beyond a familiar and narrow range become shibboleths. In ancient societies, the use of shibboleths could lead to stoning. Now they are more likely to result in stonewalling.

Never before in human history have so many serious problems needed such thoughtful consideration. The proper use of the right words is key to understanding. And understanding is bedrock to blazing a trail that leads out of the thicket of complexity into clear plans and thoughtful commitments. Meaning is not necessarily guaranteed by sticking to simple words or short sentences, however clearly a speaker may have intended them. Consider, for example:

Ship sails today.

Three simple, broadly understood words. One sentence. But not even the punctuation reveals the speaker’s intent. Is the sentence an imperative, and order commanding the commitment of a commodity, sails, to a process, shipment? Or is the sentence declarative, providing information on a dock, that a ship, like the Titanic, will weigh anchor and voyage to a destination? Often context rushes to the rescue, but if “Ship sails today” were the only message beamed to extraterrestrial intelligence, what would the receivers make of it, even if we provided them pictures of a ship and a sail?

The problem with junk words is both that their frequency creates confusion while diminishing the intended signal. Today one may speak at great length and never communicate anything close to deep meaning. Even on as august a source as NPR radio, a guest and her host used the word “incredible” an incredible nine times in two minutes. For want of the ability to tap the correct word in order to discuss and describe, the retreat to a much repeated hyperbole acquitted the discussion of the customary burden of serious communication.

A need is rapidly developing for the intervention of a crucial lexicographic remedial program, because, in incontrovertible truth – as the super storm Sandy of 2012 proved – there is not an app for everything. And to restrict one’s attention, time and even belief that your i-phone will rescue you from a flooding basement is dangerously delirious thinking. At such moments, it matters not at all that you have five thousand Friends across every nation on Earth (upper case E means the planet, lower case e means dirt). What you need at such moments is one real first responder who understands one simple word: “Help!”

In some essential respect, as tribal noise inundates modern conversation, this book is a desperate cry to rescue the language from an onrushing flood of meaninglessness. It seeks those readers who are able to understand the cry for help, trusting that without them, entropy will put meaning to rout.

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