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Strictly Speaking

The Gold Standard of Words, Part 1


In order to polarize my argument, I’ll provide you with a linguistic choice. It is not an arbitrary choice, or a choice of preference, or one that skews the field of reason toward a favored conclusion; it is a linguistically utilitarian choice. It favors choices that improve the density in meaning that result from making the best choice among many available options.

In its most extreme form, unshaded by the many nuances that language often brings, it is this: either words are unconfusing universally understood symbols of meaning that guide communication, discussion, argument, agreement, actions and commitments, or they tend toward familiar noises, issued without attention to a emotional connotation or deep meaning, but only for the purpose of creating the illusion of agreeability, and for signaling that you belong to a group, share their beliefs, outlooks, values and hopes, and are not one of the dreaded Other.

Uttering familiar tribal noise indicates that you belong, are a person every other tribesman would like to share a beer with. By narrowing vocabulary and avoiding substance in your speech, you assure other tribesmen that no serious disagreement will arise, because by limiting the range of words used, utterances can never be divisive. By resetting your default to tribal noise, or MacLanguage, conformist usage forces words to change meaning to buttress the social purpose of unification.

The result is that the scientific convention of deliberately and consciously choosing exactly defined words, words that are dense in unambiguous meaning, words that encourage skepticism and dispute, is consciously suppressed in favor of the repetition of familiar, even contradictory words, words or gestures nurtured by social conventions – such as nodding, shrugging, and “whatever.”

If we could find a gold standard for word choice, it would require a density of meaning, words created as distinct for specific and important purposes not subordinated to intellectual pretenses, words not conscripted to create the appearance of meaning whereas in fact their use betrays a lack of understanding. E. B. White recognized a fundamental elegance in the English language: if a speaker or writer is conversant enough with its vocabulary and presses hard enough, he or she can almost always find the word with exactly the intended meaning.

This kind of definitive specificity eliminates the confusion of vagueries arising from using unspecific words, as in “Why didn’t you show up at the place and get the thing and the other thing along with whatever and bring them you know where after?”

In spoken American English, this sort of expression occurs every day. A clear improvement would be, “Why weren’t you at Sutton Place at three to pick up the salad and wine?” This question rephrases the former one with specific referents, and at a level of language that is no more demanding of immediate comprehension than its earlier version.

The recurrent point of such considerations is that unless the objective of speech is the simultaneous destruction of individuality and communication, a departure from the current trend toward ever narrower core vocabularies is essential.

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