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Strictly Speaking

Say What You Mean


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. Read More 
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Junk Words, Part 1

Our DNA is a molecular language that allows the successful results of evolutionary selection to provide for the creation of amino acids, proteins, and then, step-by-step, the differentiation of cells into tissues, organs and a bipedal stereoscopic creature that occupies the taxonomic slot Homo sapiens.

On close examination, our DNA is not the elegant, miraculously minimalist formulation one might expect of an intelligent designer, but contains inactive records or ancient infections that our primate ancestors battled and overcame, along with unmistakable evidence for occasional, if infrequent, dalliances with our Neanderthal cousins. A surprising swath of the doubly spiraling molecule composed of just four amino acids bound at the girth by nucleotide bases is what popular science writers and geneticists have coined “junk DNA.”

Junk DNA is an inextricable part of us, but benign, unthreatening, simply ineffectual. Like sentimental objects consigned to a dusty attic, junk DNA has somehow accumulated but never expresses itself. It is not dangerous, in the sense of representing a latent threat to as few as one in twenty million people. It is simply the residue of the struggle to advance from an earlier form into a new and more challenging niche. In this respect it is dissimilar to a carcinogenic mutation, a change in an individual’s DNA that may occur more frequently in one cultural group or region of population than in the population at large.

Many mutations are known and cataloged, some as clearly as a single gene that codes for Huntington’s Disease, a chronically progressive neurologically degenerative affliction that killed folk singing legend Woody Guthrie.

By contrast, junk DNA follows us like a chain of cans tied to the back of a car that chases newly weds to their future. The difference is that it follows us from generation to generation in a process that reaches back many millions of years. It is an artifact that, molecularly, no longer communicates useful design information. Quite literally in fact, it is silent, unexpressed. We do not see it manifest anywhere in our form. It is quintessentially insignificant. In Shakespeare’s memorable and carefully chosen words, it signifies nothing.

By analogy, usage is increasingly injecting words into conversation that are so often and inappropriately repeated that they, too, are to meaningful expression what junk DNA is to the human genome. But instead of being a legacy of abandoned and resurrected junk, junk words are hollow neologisms, their contributions nullified by obligatory repetition, their occurrence attributable to a modern tribal need: to remain included, to be accepted.

A formal precedent for the concatenation of junk words masquerading as serious discussion occurs in the United States Congress. It is called a filibuster. Once given the floor by the speaker, a Congressman may speak until his (or her) voice fails him (or her), as long as he (or she) speaks words. They can be proper nouns from a phone book. In fact, this is common source of material for filibustering.

The purpose of the filibuster is to obstruct discussion or delay a vote on an issue that is unfavored by a party or individual. Filibusters have delayed, sometimes for many days, the inevitable passage of landmark legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act. The purpose of sustaining the vocalization of words is not to advance discussion, but to paralyze attention on the speaker, without a commensurate obligation to the speaker to make sense, or introduce any matter relevant to communication or understanding.

The shrinkage of core vocabulary that has paralleled the decline in verbal SAT scores for four consecutive decades flourishes in the social gatherings of young adults whose range of spoken words on any given evening, excluding proper nouns such as names, may never exceed one hundred and fifty. Beyond this, many of the words used in informal conversation are used incorrectly or confusingly, the precedent often set from mistaken use by newscasters or contemporaries.

If the conversation from one million parties were parsed for linguistic breadth, it is unlikely that the range of words used would begin to indicate a language with a lexicon of nearly one million English words, and an extension of these words into applications in specific fields, like chemistry or physics, that easily exceeds eleven million and growing.

In order to participate meaningfully in discussion within a field of specialty, one must expand the facility with the language by mastering both concepts and related words. At some point, a choice is made between the lonely pursuit of excellence and the comfort that by constraining the use of words to familiarly repeated sounds, a social purpose is served.

By “dumbing down” speech, social access is broadened. Intellectually unthreatened people are more open to accepting strangers. And between belonging and exclusion, many chose the path of least resistance. Read More 
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