Let's Talk About Language

I hate having to preface my thoughts like this, but I want to be clear: I freaking love free speech. I feel privileged to live in a country where it's guaranteed as there are actually few of those in this world. I like to trot out the "I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it" mantra as much as anyone else. What I want to suggest is not limiting someone else's speech, but analyzing the thoughts exiting your facehole before you put them in someone else's head. So, in the past I've talked a little bit about labels and how they impact our world view, but labels are just words. Can words actually shape our perspectives?

Words often carry significant subtext, intentional or not. Sometimes I find it interesting to search the words we use every day for hidden meaning. The person who originally turned me on to this was R. Buckminster Fuller. Bucky, as he liked to be called, was a quirky, yet brilliant, dude who was dedicated to improving the world. One of his, in my opinion, more admirable traits was his eagerness to adjust his model of the universe to fit new information. One of the ways he accomplished this was to analyze words instead of just using them, often rejecting commonplace misnomers. Probably the best known example of this is his disdain of "sunrise" and "sunset". We have known for hundreds of years that the sun does not orbit the earth, but we still use words that give the impression that it does (in case you want to change, Bucky ended up adopting "sunsight" and "sunclipse" from a letter written to him). He also preferred not to use "up" and "down", because they give the suggestion that we exist on a planar surface, instead of a sphere, but this one is a little more complicated (he suggested "in" (toward) and "out" (away from) the Earth's center of gravity.)

A more recent example came from a colleague of mine. While it isn't necessarily a language problem, it's definitely in the same vein. Whether you use Fahrenheit or Celsius the way you measure temperature is a bit misleading. If you've ever thought that "it must be a million below out here", you should think again. Clearly it's hyperbole, but ignore that for a moment. If we look at the Kelvin scale, there is a zero which you can't go below, noted as "Absolute Zero". Note that this is −273.15° Celsius and −459.67° Fahrenheit, which should give you an idea where the problem is. Temperature has an absolute lower limit but we currently don't know of an absolute upper limit, though there are some theories. We're taught that numbers go off to positive and negative infinity, so when you include negative temperatures in your scale, you promote the notion of "infinite cold".

Ok, so you may now be thinking that your vocabulary is bad for scientists, but who cares? You're not working in a lab, you're trying to decide whether or not you should wear a jacket. This concept isn't limited to mathematical models or spacial orientation, it's nearly every word you use. I personally have an inexcusable tendency to say "up" north and "down" south (I'm sorry). There are a lot of misleading or abused words that have (sometimes legal) new definitions that are different from the commonly accepted nomenclature. Some of my favorites:

Organic: From our friend Wikipedia: "foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers". However, if you ask a chemist, he'll probably tell you something like "of or relating to animal or plant constituents or products having a carbon basis".

Unlimited: For years now mobile carriers in the US have been advertising Unlimited data plans, but then listing limits in the Terms of Service. It's amazing what an asterisk in a commercial can do to the meaning of a word.

News: Theoretically, the news, newspapers, news channels, etc. are intended to inform their audiences of current happenings and such. At some point along the way, opinion pieces were allowed, but in a separate section. Today, News Channels have fought for and won the legal right to tell lies. (No, I don't watch that other news channel either, whatever you want to prop up as an example.)

Alright, so why does all of this garbage just not make me a pedant?

We live in an amazing information age yet we are still spouting common misconceptions that should have been dumped years, decades, sometimes centuries ago. Often these misconceptions are reinforced by poor word choice. Language is constantly in flux and we should accept that and move forward. We should adapt the way we communicate to always convey the truth. Along the way we pick up clarity, which is a pretty sexy bonus, but our goal here is to help align our speech and our thoughts. Heated arguments often boil down to semantics*, but before you even begin to argue over whether Webster or Oxford is more reliable, you should think about how the words you are using are affecting your own perspective.

*I honestly believe right now in the world somewhere two people are engaging in physical violence next to an open dictionary.

 

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