In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously declares that words mean what he wants them to mean. I’ve known people to declare the same thing — that, for whatever reason, they can use their own meanings for words. (To be clear, Lewis Carroll was mocking the idea.)
While ideas matter more than the words used to express them, it’s a lot more challenging to communicate and discuss those ideas without a shared vocabulary. A common language that is rich and detailed makes the expression of ideas all the more precise and accurate.
This is why con artists prefer convoluted language: it’s a mask.
It’s not that everyone who ignores conventional meaning is a con artist. There are legitimately smart people who simply lack the background to know the lingo.
In my experience, such people are usually more than willing to learn the common language given a chance. After all, it is the ideas that matter. Only prima donnas insist there is something “wrong” with communicating in a way that allows others to see their ideas clearly.
So it’s always a red flag to me when someone refuses to engage in plain words or in the shared lingo of the field. I can’t help but wonder why. Do they just not know how, or are they hiding something?
There is also that I believe genuine intelligence wants to communicate, wants to be understood. It’s not afraid to speak as plainly as necessary to get its ideas across.
Here’s the bit from Looking-Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything,…
Indeed, as anyone would be.
There is a general quote, often incorrectly attributed to Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein, that if one can’t explain something to [one’s grandmother| a six-year-old child| a freshman student| …] then one doesn’t really understand it.
While it’s not a true quote, I think it’s a true idea.
I think being able to explain something clearly enough that almost anyone can understand is indeed a true mark of understanding it. (The explaining may require some teaching, speaking, or writing, skills, but without the understanding, there is no use for those skills.)
I have found that nothing solidifies my own understanding as much as explaining, teaching, or writing, does. (Homework, when you come down to it, is getting the student to explain their understanding to the teacher.) Looking for ways to make something clear really does test one’s depth with the subject. This blog has been invaluable to me for that.
(To reiterate, teaching is a skill. I think there may also be talent associated with it, but anyone can learn the skills. And as with any skill, some practice is required.)
Language allows communication. Precise language allows precise communication. Goes without saying, right?
Math is the ultimate precise language, which is one reason it’s the language of science. Math is abstract, and its foundation is as universal as physical reality and the laws of physics. That universality makes it the language for alien contact — we’ll both necessarily have those common math concepts.
The language used to express those concepts differs, of course (see: Spelling Numbers), but the basics are easily and readily expressed. Such basics lead to a common notation, and that leads to ever advanced concepts.
The physical sciences deal generally with hard facts and concrete nouns, which, like math, can be referenced in various ways, so math and science combine to create a common lingo.
Obviously, attempts to find a mutual language require mutual effort and good faith. One could certainly, with ill intent, badly muddle attempts to build a vocabulary. (Might make an interesting science fiction story.)
There is a certain Orwellean component to the idea of re-defining words to suit one’s purpose.
Words are signs for ideas, and when language is deliberately manipulated to corrupt the links to those ideas, then a shared external reality becomes suspect.
We’ve seen this in play for decades in the Republican party, and it’s become a major factor in the politics of the last four years. The problem has become so severe, our society no long believes in common facts.
However, it’s important to recognize the difference between using language to communicate ideas versus using language creatively, such as all fiction writers, and poets especially, do routinely. They are not just allowed, but are expected to be, the masters of words (I’m just a smithy 😉 ).
I’m all in favor of creative language in fiction and poetry. It’s also wonderful for eulogies and a variety of speeches (retirement, commencement, etc). It can’t be beat in a love letter. Breaking the rules is fundamental to art.
But when it comes to getting one’s ideas across accurately, then I think it’s best to play by strict rules. It’s a lot like how we’ve agreed to spell words the same way, just on a much higher level.
[As an example, I’ve found that, for my taste, historian/author James Gleick is too creative and poetic with language. I recently read The Information, (2011) and had the same problem I did with Time Travel: A History (2016). I find his style distracting and, therefore, detracting.]
NOTE: This post has been in my Drafts folder for almost a year, and if I recall correctly, I copied much of the text from an older draft, so parts are more years old. (I’m in the process of trying to clear out my Drafts folder for the new year.)
To the extent it’s about anything or anyone specific (and it really isn’t), those events or people are years in the rear view mirror. I’ve let the post age expressly to disconnect it and make it general.
I wonder sometimes if people are unwilling to be specific and clear in order to avoid being wrong. I know people who do operate that way — there was a gal, call her “Judy,” back in the day. Judy was what I call a SPitR (“spitter” but no spitting is implied).
A SPitR is a Smartest Person in the Room, and, to be clear, the title is legit. Such a person really (usually) is the smartest person in the room, and such people get very used to being right nearly all the time because they are right nearly all the time.
Nearly. Everyone is wrong sometimes.
The other important word is “usually” — usually the smartest person in the room. Sometimes someone smarter comes along, and the reaction a SPitR has tends to divide into either, “Great, I can learn from them!” or “Oh no, they make me look bad!”
In some cases the latter causes issues, which brings us back to “Judy.” Who was legit smarter than most people and was almost always right. To the point she couldn’t handle being wrong. Judy had a phrase she used any time she was confronted with having said something that turned out false. She’d always say, “I lied.”
She’d say it with a smile, as a joke, but people’s language gives them away (especially the things they repeat). She was incapable of admitting she was wrong. I found it quite remarkable the night we got into a debate about whether jazz was an improvisational music form. In the end, the matter was settled when she said, “This is my house, therefore I’m right.” There isn’t much one can say to that. (Too bad we didn’t have Wikipedia back then, although I’m not sure even Google beats a full “My House!”)
Anyway, to wrap up a long story, it stuck with me ever since as a lesson about a trap that even very smart people can fall into. Don’t get too used to being right; learn to admit when you’re wrong. (Turns out you learn more that way.)
The history of science is filled with some of the smartest people ever latching onto a fantastical idea they couldn’t let go of. One might point to SUSY or string theory as modern examples. It’s kind of a good-money-after-bad thing. People get invested, especially in their own ideas.
But I think that, when an idea — for whatever reason — isn’t physical, it’s a mistake to take it too seriously.
Note that SUSY and ST have logic, even math, associated with them, so it’s not that these ideas fail to be logically grounded. It’s that they fail to be physically grounded. There is no unexplained observation or data that demands the hypothesis.
As I referred to above, our culture has become, in my eyes, mired in the fantastical. (It’s resulted in, among other things, a lot of what I call “semantic confusion” but that’s another post.)
Much of our current culture is based in fantasy, be it Star Wars, Star Trek, superheroes, Transformers, Aliens, Predators, killer robots, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dragons, magic, astrology, tarot, religion, angels, spy stories, detective stories (in which ordinary people solve murders), video games, fan fiction, comic books, romance fiction, in fact most fiction, and the list goes on.
Which is all fine. Really. It’s fine. It’s not a problem.
Unless it’s too much of your reality.
Unless you take it too seriously.
I’ve realized rather recently that the clause of the Leon Wieseltier 10-Word Triplet I originally thought the least of the three is, in fact, as important, if not more so, than the first two:
“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”
“More physical reality” is what I’m talking about. I’ll get into it more next time.
Stay physical, my friends!