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Strictly Speaking

At a Loss for Words

INCREDIBLE

Incredible belongs in close association with the other words in tribal noise that banish silence at the expense of creating meaning. In no less than an NPR interview, where one might hope for information to be valued, the word “incredible” was spoken not fewer than eight times inside two and one half minutes, by both the host and guest. Whether or not they understood it, the word that had made their voices skip like a scratch on an old vinyl record means, “not credible, or difficult to believe.”

Now, since the purpose of the interview was, ostensibly at least, to communicate an experience that did happen, was witnessed and did, presumably, have reality, and, ergo, credibility, the repeated used of incredible was reduced to – at best – an interjection.

And there’s the rub.

An interjection is no more effective in communication than a stutter. At the bottom of the box of lazy, rapid, unconsidered speech, tribal noise provides and number of reliable “go to” options, words that have become interchangeable in usage, but on examination seem like fragments from the gibberish of “an idiot, signifying nothing.”

The sad reality of having only “amazing, awesome and incredible” to describe events that a larger vocabulary would make specific and memorable is that, of all languages, one of the strengths of English is the availability of exactly the right word or phrase. But in terms of conventional contemporary response, the effect of chanting one of the currently popular Cracker Jack treats is to get the tribe’s heads nodding, invoking, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” when it is far from clear – when the words are considered – what they can mean.  Read More 
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Tribal Noise? Definitely

DEFINITELY

Here’s yet another perfectly serviceable word that has, by common usage, descended into a meaning and subtext unsupported etymologically or logically. Consider an example. Four people, separated into two groups of two, sit in coffee shops of antipodal (it’s a perfectly good word, so far uneroded by overuse; look it up, or see antipodal, previously) political alignment. In the separated groups, two of the speakers reach opposite conclusions, but in both cases their partners respond with the word, “Definitely.”

They apply the word in the sense now intended, which is “I agree emphatically.” But if the separate conversations have reached opposite conclusions and the speakers are seeking a valid, unassailable position, their opposing conclusions cannot be validly received with the word “definitely.”

To be definite, a composition, material, or even argument, needs to provide a defining situation, usually after long and sometimes sharp exchanges, and must define something according to broadly agreed-upon standards that often demand precise measurements by fundamentally different methods. More is required than just agreement among a certain set of minds that regard themselves as in. Prior to his exposure as a fraud and criminal, all of Bernie Madoff’s investors agreed that he was “definitely” the go-to guy for their money, the kind of guy whose shrewdness was a slam dunk, the kind of guy who definitely knew where the secret mother lode of profit lay.

Among individuals who behave and believe by simple wish-fulfillment that what they desire becomes true, “definitely” and “I agree” become a strange perceptual fusion equivalent to “no sane person could disagree because I could never handle the resulting uncertainty.” Bringing us back, along a long and tortured path, to the inextricable inevitability of the fabric of the physical universe with uncertainty, the awareness that even the revolutionary Einsteinian universe (a mere century) old is now a minority player in the cosmos as a whole, and that the only certainty that we definitely know is that the more we discover, the less comfortable is eventual truth with the present use of “definitely.” QED. But not entirely definitely. Read More 
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Impact Lost to Hyperbole

AWESOME

Synonymous with Michael Phelps? Before you react “absolutely,” read the section on “absolutely.” Ditto “definitely.” This one word response to a question by a sports commentator or music show emcee has become the unacknowledged poster child word of the information age, embodying all the yearnings of broadcast moguls. It is short, uttered enthusiastically and is commonly taken by the audience as representing a fulfillment of their deepest expectations. Check it out.

Awesome is here, and there, and everywhere you look. The word for that condition is ubiquitous. Awesome has achieved that rare quality of being both insuperable in experience and available everywhere by its simple virtue of spontaneous declaration and bilateral agreement. The word itself is current and user-friendly.

Once awesome was a liturgical word used cautiously along with a mixture of other words, like ineffable or transcendent, not interchangeably but to add texture and nuance to expression. In those days, awesome was weighed in consideration before use. Its meaning, according to a source as current and universally available as Google dictionary, is “very impressive and often frightening.”

Perhaps when Michael Phelps speaks of his own performances in myriad swimming events, this is what he means. But as he also deems as awesome certain pop music tracks by Eminem, application of the word “awesome” seems less likely. Or not. But if not, it is because a great deal of thought and cleverness has been done by Michael Phelps before declaring for both his world record in the one hundred meter butterfly and what might in a previous age been a vinyl record the same status as conferred by the definition.

Phelps’s use of awesome would be with an intention to provoke the audience to deeper levels of connection and meaning. It is not clear that the storied icon of swimming has devoted this much cogitation to his choice of the word. It is no more clear than when other sports or entertainment heroes give voice to the word that they have considered and discarded other choices like tremendous, fantastic, indescribable (sometimes connoted by awesome), ineffable, superb, magnificent, splendid, or any of a number of words less familiar, equally short, but certainly more distinguishing.

In fairness the pandemic spread in the use of awesome is simply our postmodern contribution to similar expostulations from former era, for example “peachy keen.” The phenomenon of grabbing a word from a familiar use and conferring upon it by diversion to new purposes (a kind of linguistic highjacking), there is by growing agreement – the same kind that arrayed the emperor in his wonderful clothes – a snobbish conspiracy that anyone who is anyone nowadays digs what we mean when we say “awesome.” But caution needs to be applied to a progression of radical conscription where use creates lexicographic dissonance.

For example, while “cool” has been around longer than “awesome,” it is generally contrasted to awesome by its understatement. “Cool” has be in and out of fashion, and is currently in, but if you check with next year’s list of what’s hot and not, may be out again. Yet in a great thermodynamic conundrum, an individual (usually but not in this PC age exclusively of the opposite sex) may simultaneously be “cool” and “hot.”

Here’s the rub, of hands together to produce heat: By their definitions “cool” and “hot” are near opposites. There is no system of logic, mathematical or symbolic, that allows identities to be opposites without nullifying the proof and destroying the meaning. And attempting to rescue the situation with a groan and, “Well, you know everybody understand what is means,” brings us back to that wonderful riposte by Scarlet Johanssen is the film Lost in Translation.”

Here’s how it plays out. Enlisting a barrage of babble, a film maker presses Johanssen with a rhetorical, “You know what I mean?” and she answers, quite honestly, unblinkingly and refreshingly, “No, I don’t. I have no idea what you’re saying.”

If the intention of words is to provide specific and precise relationships to meanings, even if it is a rather long list of meanings, then if communication is the attempt to embed either reasoning or emotion in sound, then – contrary to the convention of the annual reconsideration of meanings according to usage that was first popularized by the Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1960 – the range of possible meanings needs to be constrained by the definitions. But the problem with the use of “awesome” is that it destroys by overuse the power of a word that once had a rather great lifting power.

Mindless, reflexive repetition by Pavolovian stimuli not only slakes the awe from awesome, but leaves a dead sound that has become tiresome, shopworn, threadbare and clichéd. In a media like television that abhors dead air, the air is pre-deadened whenever the word “awesome” is spoken. It died not only of overuse but by predictability.

It is the sound of one hand clapping. It is all noise and no impact. And what then, is preferable? What would keep me from leaving the televison set to fetch a beer during the post-race interview? If after the anchor swimmer has ripped his suit and is asked, “So how do you feel about the new world record?” he had enough wit to quip, “The other guys gave me a great lead. I’m just glad I could keep the competition behind me.”

Get it? Behind me, as in behind. Ripped suit.

The point: you can be simple and understood, sincere and humble, and still witty in subtext, but not if all you can think when the mike is jammed under your nose is, “It was awesome.”

It would be more emotionally honest and no less meaningful to simply emit a barbaric yawp. This poetic license is extended by no lesser a bard than Walk Whitman. When there is no word that embraces the momentary feelings, don’t try to find one. It simply diminishes the emotion. Sometimes a tear, a sniffle and a smile is more eloquent, spontaneous and – yes – meaningful, than any spoken word.

Awesome has been devalued by overuse to less than zero. It cannot be resurrected or reinstated by capitalization or exclamation marks ad infinitum. No longer a word of meaning, it has been degraded to a vocal reflex, a conversational knee-jerk Read More 
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Junk Words, Overuse and Predictability

AMAZING

Amazing is tribal noise’s second choice (behind “awesome,” discussed later) for expressing astonishment at a capability that seems either beyond a speaker’s current level of understanding, or beyond what he or she believe is possible. In this sense, amazing would have been the expression of choice among neolithic tribes in New Guinea to seeing propeller planes overfly and land during the Second World War. When the war ended, the combatants left the tribesmen to themselves. Abandoned but hopeful, the tribe assembled ersatz planes from native trees and leaves. They reverse engineered planes within the limits of their technology and understanding, then prayed to them. This, they believed, is how their planes, too, could fly. By divine inspiration.

The tribesmen of New Guinea were stuck with the tough task of constructing the product of modern industry and technology with stone age tools and materials. Or they could perhaps rehabilitate machines they had seen flying. But aircraft abandoned in place by Australians or Americans proved unwilling to repeat their amazing flying act, so the tribe then set about erecting effigies of the planes that had introduced them to such amazing things before their God cursed them by ending the war. Mystified by the requirements of flight, they then built wooden mock-ups of planes and devoutly worshiped them.

Anthropologists call these rigidly believing groups cargo cults. Their prayers expressed a yearning for the returning of the gods from the sky, so they could shower the believers with an earthly heaven of previously unexperienced marvels. These tribes were the first believers in trickle down economics. The flying gods had delivered modern marvels, then abruptly left. Maybe they were now filling up their planes with goods and were heading back. All things, they believed, come to those who wait and pray. Each day held the tense anxiety of a crowd awaiting a K-Mart store opening on Black Friday. As early as 1945, demand for global business had been stimulated, but there was no supply side advantage. Cargo cults had no denominated currency or profitably exploitable resources. Nor did it inspire commercial assurance that many of the native highlanders were head hunters and cannibals.

In the simplest denotation of the word amazing, Funk and Wagnalls equates the word (an adjective) to “anything causing amazement.” But this is tautological lexicography, where a definition falls back upon an unexplained meaning of the root word to define its derivative. It then elaborates that amazement is something that causes astonishment, or creates a sense of wonder.

This poverty of meaning forces the curious, intelligent speaker to retreat to the root word of the gerund, which is amaze. What then, does amaze mean? The denotation of the verb is describes an action that fills a person with wonder, incredulity, being beyond normal experience or within the scope of belief. Something that silences or dazes us.

Time to think. If something so astonishes us as to leave us silent, then calling something “amazing” automatically disqualifies it from being amazing because we have violated the lexicographic requirement that we are dazed into silence. Ergo, modus ponens, by vocalizing a claim that cannot be valid unless silence is observed, the speaker has automatically disqualified the object or event or observation from being amazing.

But if the purpose of the expression is to create a kind of shared hysteria experienced the first time that neolithic New Guinea natives saw a plane, then “amazing” becomes less an attempt to convey meaning than it is to reveal ignorance. Often what is called “amazing” in tribal language is merely a product of a person unable to connect technological inevitabilities as quickly as innovators are. It is an admission of ignorance, the absence of technological understanding, or the eagerness to intrude in a group and become not only included, but the temporary center of attention. And this yearning, to be the center of attention, and to get your Andy Warhol entitlement of fifteen minutes of fame, requires leveraging showstopper words beyond the justification of their worth. It also betrays a mass susceptibility to hyperbolization whereby objects, products and systems are assigned powers or values far beyond their objective merits.

All of this is evident even before a serious analysis of the word “amazing” begins. Serious analyses involve dissecting the root word “amaze” Disengage the prefix “a-“ from the word “maze,” leaving the root word for later consideration. The appearance of “a-“ usually means without or lacking. For examples, the word “ament” means “without a mind.” And “alingual” means without a language. Likewise, “asexual” means “without sex” and can refer both to species without distinct sexes or to individuals who forgo the act of sex.

Continue to the root word, “maze.” One definition, the first and preferred, is a labyrinth, an intricate network of paths, many of which reach dead ends. As elements of gardens, these were very popular among the moneyed in 18th century Europe. No chateau worth its gardener would be without one. The purpose of such mazes was to test the cleverness or clairvoyance of the visitor to the maze. In simplest terms, a maze was a network designed to frustrate and entrap, to confuse and even frighten.

If taken in this sense, then the combination “a-“ (without) plus “maze” would deconstruct to mean, “the removal of a difficult, tortuous and bewildering trap.” Approximately, this would mean deliverance from frustration, or, simpler, clarification by removal of confusion. If so, the densest approximation might be deliverance, or deliverance to immediate understanding from previously invincible (or at least extricating) multiple uncertainties. After cutting away all the boxwoods from the maze, the meaning of “amazing” would need to be the opposite of its common usage, which is nearly synonymous to “awesome.”

In current usage, few words are as frequently interchanged as “amazing” and “awesome,” although their dictionary definitions are distinct. But the preservation of a word’s commonly accepted and understood meaning is important only if the purpose of conversation is intelligently informed discourse.

But intelligent discourse is best served if speakers recognize that no two words are ever exactly synonymous. This leads to a principle of identity, that every word, by virtue of its exact intersection of definition, connotation, nuance and unspoken implications is unique. If so, this relegates the thesaurus to a handbook for adding variation and avoiding repetition, often as the expense of intended meaning.

If, as often happens today, the purpose of any vocalization is merely tribal noise that facilitates inclusion in an increasingly undifferentiated group, then it does not matter that amazing deconstructs to the opposite meaning connoted by current usage.

If this line of reasoning is followed, an application of opposites is no stranger than someone being considered both “hot” and “cool.” An initial state where any body starts out both “hot” and “cool” will inevitably become “luke warm.” This is required by the second law of thermodynamics. But more bothersome is that if one follows the trend, it does not matter whether the word “black” or “white” is used. But just try convincing a commercial painter that when you wanted something “black,” you meant “white.”

For the last act, it is convenient to have saved a coup de main. And here it is. Amazing does not derive from “a-“ plus “maze,” where a maze is a human-designed nightmare created for rats to run. The root word “maze” derives instead from the word for “breast.” Amaze meant to cut off a breast.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was the first to use amaze in this sense, and since he lived nearly a thousand years before those decorative and puzzling European gardens, his meaning has both precedence and provenance. Herodotus echoed reports, too easily believed, that the Scythians had developed (or underdeveloped) a formidable corps of warrior women called Amazons. The Amazons had their right breasts cut off to allow an unimpeded snap of a drawn bowstring across their chests, releasing arrows on truer trajectories. If true, left-handed (or sinistral) women were excluded from combat, becoming the earliest known beneficiaries of the 4F draft rating.

Fortified by Herodotus’s claim, the first Europeans to invade the vast and dense jungles of South America encountered short, smooth skinned, long-haired natives with bows and arrows. They attributed these archers to be the legendary fierce women warriors called Amazons. The vast river system around which they lived is still called the Amazon River.

Only oncological surgeons currently amaze women. And if the word amazing is used correctly, only women can be amazed. Most don’t want to be, and certainly not by men who assure them that the operation will allow them to live longer, healthier lives. No doubt these patients are amazed at the capacity of surgeons for self-deceptions in pursuit of a favored belief. Such surgeons would fit in quite well among the cargo cultists of New Guinea, where belief in unpowered flight using rickety wood and fabric ersatz airplanes is fervently shared by all.

Strictly speaking, the only thing that can be detonatively and unconfusingly described as amazing is an autonomic surgeon with a sharp scalpel and no awareness that he has chosen to destroy an identity in order to keep the patient alive. This was a very popular rationalization for search and destroy operations during the Vietnam war; we were told that the village (or hamlet) needed to be destroyed in order to save it. And in some metaphorical sense, this idea is, denotatively and connotatively, amazing.

Before jumping onto the tribal noise bandwagon and reducing your choice to “amazing” or “awesome,” look up and try out some more appropriate alternatives, starting at the common letter “a” with “astonishing.”

Try to express what it is you think and feel as exactly as you can. If you are impressed, you can roll out “impressive,” because you are. Grow, don’t shrink. Expand, don’t compress. Downsizing your brain by reducing the workforce of your vocabulary pays few long-term returns. Pursuing this trends to its logical conclusion pushes your vocalizations back in evolution to our close cousins the chimps, who hoot and bark and shriek, but never ponder the possibility “To be or not to be,” because they never get to A, let alone B. Read More 
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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. Read More 
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