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Strictly Speaking

As You Like It, or Not


Like has become the interjection of choice in today’s usage, the crutch sound without which every other sentence seems unable to limp into vocalization and perhaps proof irrefutable the linguists are right, that whatever comes out of mouths and passes lips ultimately depends on the inference and nuance machinery of the listeners.

But the echolalic use of “like” seems in some weird linguistic way to parallel the phenomenon of junk DNA, sitting within a genome as witness to hitchhiker or invading organism that came and saw, but did not conquer. Instead they just hung around to be useless.

Like is one of the junk DNA fragments of language, obligatory to prove that you have been hearing everyone else say like, and glomming on to be trendy, to belong, to disappear in sameness because real expression is too daring, too risky, too individualistic

The frequent use of like suggests that you cannot be liked unless you are using it, and will draw attention to yourself as a snotty egghead commie East coast liberal snob if you manage to connect a working train of thought to its vocal expression without once backpedaling into this word.

Saying like makes you recognizable as a person who doesn’t need to know the difference between like and as, since both produced similes and similes are cool, even if you don’t know that they’re similes any more than you know what synedoche means.

You know, like it’s like I don’t want to be so unlike other people who use like because nobody will hook up with me on Facebook and my life will be over. Everybody on FaceBook will dislike me because I’ve boycotted like and feel, like, you know, isolated and needing a good gun show to break out of it, dude.

It’s likeness we’re seeking, not difference.

If you’re different, I mean, like my God! Or don’t like my God. But at least think of it! Read More 
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Hopefully, A Guide to Useage


As currently used to open a sentence, hopefully fails utterly in communication not only because it assumes that the listener has the same hopes as the speaker, but because, in a complex world where opposition may occur, an adverb should be directly associated with a verb, coming either before or after it

So one may say “She trained hopefully,” in that hopefully describes her training, not, as often now, after the pronoun I (Hopefully, I). And yes, training can be other than hopeful, in that hope may not characterize the process of training. It may better or more accurately be motivated by revenge, ambition, envy, a quest for recognition or equality, a feeling of responsibility to teammates, the nation, or even an appetite for pain.

Hopefully has become an introductory conversational noise intended to disarm criticism and to enlist support and understanding, rather than to provide a convincing launching pad for effective arguments.

Strange as it may seem, hopefully does not necessarily imply benevolence or a hopeful outcome for all. Hitler hopefully attacked Russia, betting that he could overrun Moscow before winter. Certainly he hoped this, and certainly he attacked with this hope, but neither his hopes nor the associated actions left any hope whatever for the poor Russians, who had misguidedly signed a nonaggression pact with Germany not a year earlier.  Read More 
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Junk Words, Overuse and Predictability


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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A Lexicon of Misused Words: Absolutely


In current conversation, the exact translation of this oft-heard sound is “I agree.” In context, it is always intended to communicate that head-nodding, tongue-clicking sense that only a fool or a maniac could disagree with what often as few as two people have perceived is the only available interpretation of an issue under discussion.

The ticklish points about a declaration instantly penetrating the possibility of immutable truth it that such a conclusion has been shown experimentally to be unattainable. A Nobel Prize winning German physicist, who as an ardent Nazi might have loved to prove that absolutes were attainable, is better remembered for demonstrating that a fundamental limit exists on what we can know about a particle, even when it is only a single particle and even when it is well isolated from others. And while this limit was initially limited to electrons, it was eventually generalized. It applies to all other small particles as well. What it says is simple. No matter how sensitive the measuring apparatus, there is a well determined limit on what we simultaneously know can ever about a particle’s momentum and location.

The more certainly we measure its momentum (and thereby kinetic energy), the less well can we know its location. The better we pin down the location of the electron, the less we are able to know about its momentum. If we could, theoretically, in the kind of thought experiments that Einstein loved, imagine an electron whose location we knew with this illusive absoluteness, we would know nothing about its momentum. If we could know absolutely everything about its momentum, we would not know where to find it; location-wise, it could be anywhere.

And that’s the good news. The bad news is that by the act of measuring any property of a well defined fundamental particle, we leave the particle changed by the process of measurement. After determining what it was, we cannot know what it is. Nor is there some consolation prize lurking around the experimental corner.

In experimental fact, the illusive Diogenesan search for fixity gets worse. Even in practical applications far less esoteric than quantum physics, the best efforts to achieve certain goals result in successes that are tantalizingly asymptotic.

For example, take the quest for achieving a temperature of absolute zero, the point at which matter decays to its ground state and the evasive Bose-Einstein condensate allows an energetic degeneracy in all the constituent atoms and defines a state of matter entirely distinct from gases, solids, liquids, plasmas or gels. By comparison to scientific achievements in cryoscopy, vacant interstellar space, basking in the dimming glow of the Big Bang, is absolutely tropical at 3o K.

How cold is this? For comparison, room temperature is about 298o K. Water freezes at 273o K. Nitrogen freezes at 63o K, oxygen at 50.5o K, hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, at 14.025o K.

Helium cannot be liquified at all unless at pressure of 25.2 atmospheres of – yes – helium (what else is gaseous at this temperature?) is applied. Then it solidifies at 1.1 Kelvins (a Kevin is a unit of temperature equivalent to one degree on a scale where the difference between the freezing and boiling points of water at one atmosphere pressure is one hundred degrees).

Scientists pressed on, using energy transfer technologies identical in principle to those used in refrigeration, pumping heat out into mechanical and radiative forms, chasing a record low currently held by the Helsinki University of Technology at 100 picoKelvins. The prefix pico is mathematically equivalent to 10-12.

Without doubt this is an impressive achievement, but the only absolute verity is that researchers will never achieve absolute zero. It’s against a law of physics.

The second law of thermodynamics guarantees that heat always flows from hot to cold. As long as there is any more heat outside the lowest temperature achieved, it will push heat into the coldest region.

And while we’re discussing absolutes, perhaps we should require that we absolutely know what it is we are discussing. Whereas scientist and engineers insist on defining terms in a commonly understood and agreed-upon system, most daily conversation uses words where the meaning assigned to a word is by no means perfectly shared by all conversationalists.

Even if it were, how is it possible to assign absolutes about the nature of something in a universe where some things can be duplicated and projected in space, or where the characteristics of something may be invariably related to another particle several hundred thousand galaxies away?

This is the vexing puzzle of quantum entanglement, and reproducible labs experiments have proved physicists able to clone basic particles and teleport the clone through space. Quantum entanglement lies at the heart of what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” In two entangled particles, information encoded when they were created after the Big Bang allows them to interact faster than the speed of light nearly fourteen billion years later.

And so when one of two entangled particles here on earth is excited by inputting a quantum of energy, its twin way off on the edge of the universe enters the same excited state instantly. If we were to attempt salvation of the expression absolutely, we might be inclined to claim that this sort of nonsense absolutely cannot exist. But reproducible experiments confirm that it does.

Agreement is easy. The urge to belong to a group is often more forceful than mustering the will to disagree, to be the first to say that the emperor has no clothes, or the Earth is not flat, or the sun not rotating around the Earth, or that we are all evolved from prototypical biochemical units, or even that with continued carbon dioxide emissions the Earth will go the way of carbon-dioxide shrouded Venus, with its molten crust flowing on its surface.

The enlistment of absolutely is part of a more general trend in linguistic use where a position is seemingly strengthened by applying a word that can, by established standards of direct analysis, be shown to be wrong.

Whereas “I agree,” would be justified and correct, the escalation by common consent to “absolutely” attempts to endow the point at issue with a status of being beyond dispute or discussion. If nothing else, this is antiscientific, because science is an endless process forever reaching for truth, where each result must be better than the one before, a continuous refinement by experimental test of passing hypotheses that have settled in, temporarily, as the current standard wisdom of a paradigm. And at the heart of this search passing perceptions of truths are, by their nature, never absolute. In order to hope for progress, every ongoing maxim in the never-ending debate requires doubt and questioning.

There is a fallacy in applying the standard of common sense too narrowly, because our too common senses have their limitations, and could never have taken use into the impeccable strangeness of relativity or down to the seemingly inescapable limits of quantum mechanics. In our minds is a sense that cause and effect are related, often as much by prior expectations and hopes as by the forces that more powerfully govern them.

In a perfectly causal world, where ends are determined by starting conditions, identical twins would fare no differently when raised separately then when raised together. They would be from the moment of their conceptions caught in a web of inevitability, down to their simultaneous death on the same day from the same cause.

But that deterministic outcome does not accord with chaos theory, which brings with it a strange result of interim periods of long range order in systems ruled by near term predictability. And so, as Hamlet wisely said to Horatio, “There are more wonders in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The next time you are tempted to parrot “Absolutely,” in order to more closely engage an unexamined matter, consider saying instead, “I agree.” Or if you are braver, say, “I disagree,” and say why. Too often the appearance of “Absolutely” in a group silences all discussion or debate of facts, or prohibits consideration of possible errors in logic.

As currently applied, “absolutely” is a dangerous word, intended as a kind of social superglue, like National Socialism in post World War I Germany, a country so fused in absolute beliefs that they murdered political dissenters, warred to impose their system on the world, and created a systematic extermination machine intended to wipe out an entire people. Absolutely.

More creative types, those who think before they speak, are usually onto this like flies on manure. In The English Patient the character Catherine Clifton responds, “‘No’ I can believe. Absolutely troubles me.” Read More 
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