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Strictly Speaking

Toxic Usage: Poisoned Expression


Here’s another legitimate, specific and limiting word that has been hijacked into misuse, simply because it is so short, punchy and evokes immediate fear and dread in listeners. Since news programs thrive on creating anxiety, they are unlikely to be scolded into correction, even when they are dead wrong. Misuse makes them wrong, and many toxins will make them dead. But a toxin is a poison that is evolved by natural selection in certain predators (snakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, fish, lizards and spiders, plants, bushes, fruits and mushrooms) with one of two purposes: (1) either to incapacitate its prey, or (2) to make it inedible to animals inclined to prey on, and eat, it. If the substance, like phosgene gas, has not evolved by natural selection, it is not a toxin, and therefore cannot, by definition, be toxic. It can be poisonous, deadly, lethal and any number of other fairly applicable adjectives

But toxic?

Not on your life. In terms of communicating vital information, the narrowest and most exact application of a word is the most useful in evoking a correct meaning, and in seeking the appropriate remedy to a problem.

In writing contracts, lawyers use exact, commonly understood words to create a set of agreements between parties, one that the courts can easily interpret and on which they can consistently rule. In law, at least, a word cannot be claimed to mean one thing to one party and another to another party. If you’re puzzled as to what use should be applied where toxin does not, it’s poison.  Read More 
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Healthy or Healthful


The common misusage of healthy is the symptom of a disease that progresses toward the complete and universal collapse of linguistic complexity and specificity in pursuit of an unbridled search for simplicity. Defenders of the inevitable race toward implied contextual understanding resemble cave men driving herds of mammoths. Certain of the vast surplus created by the process of chase, they are swept forward by collective conviction, then by Newtonian momentum, and finally – caught in the pack of panicked animals – become what they had wanted to create, food. And so, from this metaphor, comes a recommendation of more food for thought.

Regarding healthy. Healthy is an adjective used to describe a living entity without an illness that creates a serious challenge to their continued viability (see viability). As a part of speech, it is never used by well-educated people as an adverb, as in the commonly heard sentence, “I’ve learned to eat healthy,” when they intend, “I’ve learned to eat healthfully.”

A lifestyle cannot be healthy, because a lifestyle is not a living thing. The adjective applies directly to the beneficiary of healthful eating, not to the program of ingestion.

To become healthy is the objective of consuming all those megavitamins and unproven herbal supplements. The process is not healthy, again because processes cannot be healthy, except perhaps by clever neologistic applications to the well being of a nation or economy. Yet one may forcefully argue (quoting Sun Tu’s “The Art of War”) that long wars are not good for nations, and a nation that stubbornly pursues the supremacy by martial means will not prevail over time because the means in soldiers and wealth will result in eventual starvation and collapse, as happened – despite the leading military technologies and best battlefield strategists in the world – to Germany in two recent world wars.

Nor can even a peacetime capitalist economy claim to be healthy when it fails to protect the human capital of its workforce (which drives its productivity) from incapacitating illness, either brief or potentially life threatening.

Like so many other words now in common misuseage, the word “healthy” no longer appears to be applied with the distinctive and informative power that it once had, but is now used almost parallel to what George Orwell coined newspeak, in which words become comparable to garments in the emperors clothes, weak acoustical links in vocal (not verbal; both written and spoken language are verbal) exchanges, where the agenda is to excuse as unnecessary the need for content and substance in communication.

Instead, the purpose of using words becomes mindless repetition in familiar patterns in order to connect, Facebook fashion, to the greatest number of people and to use the existence in number of such connections in a web-based support system, when in fact few of these connections would acknowledge ever hearing the names of their friends (sic, see friend).

In an age where the scientific method has supplanted the Book of Common Prayer in paving a road to the future, the evolving question becomes – and even if limited exclusively to the well being of the only fully linguistic animal – is this pattern healthy? Read More 
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Good, Bad, Ugly and Confused


Contrary to what common American usage would suggest, good is not the same as well. But this distinction may make little difference when the trend in usage is to destroy more exact meanings by vocal subsumption. Good is the opposite of bad, a word that retains medical meaning, as well as “bad” referring in contemporary urban connotation to the admirably desirable if not always effective practice of impulsive confrontation. As mentioned earlier, bad can be good, suggesting that good can be bad.

But here’s the problem. The identity of opposites, as in the collision of particle with antiparticle, destroys the possibility of being exclusively and unconfusingly either one thing or its opposite.

With greatest clarity, good as opposed to evil (a word that the British apply with charm to unlikable odors) is a moral condition. Favorable moral conditions may be sought by high churchman seeking beatification, but it would be a deadly sin – vanity – to imagine that one could refer to a question, “How are you?” by answering, “Good.”

On the other hand, one can claim wellness. Well is the word sought by those asking the question, “How are you?” Well means healthy (not healthful). Except for lethal hidden cancers creeping at snails paces inside us, self assessment can extend beyond a self-deception about robust health by referral using thermometers to body temperatures, heart rates, blood pressure (via home cuff), athletic endurance and such subtleties as skin color, or conversely pallor. In past ages it was said, “He doesn’t look well,” and be perfectly understood. These days are heard the words, “He doesn’t look good,” and it could be anything from pallor to the performance of a running back on Monday night football, but rarely for Karl Rove. He doesn’t appear to be morally sound; he lies to his closest allies in order to protect his own position in the primate hierarchy.

It is well (for everyone’s blood pressure) that we exit this discussion at this point, while still trudging alongside Diogenes, reigniting his legendary lamp with Duracells claimed to be better than EverReady’s, every step of the journey still seeking an honest man, one who would never hold forth on the matter of his own goodness. In the end, only God can make that call. Which makes it so sad that humans often seek it by self-declaration, refusing a reconsideration by higher authorities who use stop-action video replay to overturn the call made by the players in a game of life where it not only counts to be good, but is even better to be better, and pays best to be best.

In such a game it is impossible to say that there is no conflict of interest – and commensurate doubt – whenever we reply to “How are you?” with “I am good.” Why is it that not even Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleeve have dissented by denying it, by responding, “I am bad,” and “I am ugly.” And you wonder why Diogenes still makes the effort. So do I. It’s a good question. Read More 
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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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