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.
Hard to define…
It’s very easy for discussions to get hung up on definitions, so a serious approach to debating a subject begins with synchronizing everyone’s vocabulary watches. Accurate and nuanced communication requires mutually understood ideas and terminology for expressing those ideas.
Yet some concepts seem almost impossible to define clearly. The idea of “consciousness” is notorious for being a definition challenge, but “morality” or “justice” or “love” are also very difficult to pin down. At the same time, we seem to share mutual basic intuitions of these things.
So the question today is: why are some concepts so hard to define?
There is an oft-quoted line from the delightful movie, The Princess Bride. The line, by Inigo Montoya, is: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The first time I noticed it was Rachel Maddow, enough years ago that I was still watching her show (so three or four, at least). Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar, so it caught my attention — my first thought was that I must be wrong about the word. I looked it up, and… I’m maybe slightly more right than wrong? Or, honestly, maybe it’s just a wash.
The word I’m talking about is craven.
Here’s something that caught my eye: Researchers at the University of Vermont, in the Computational Story Lab (!), did an interesting word content analysis on 1,700 stories downloaded from Gutenberg. Each story had been downloaded at least 150 times by readers.
The researchers used “sentiment analysis” that measures the positive or negative emotional impact of words. Using a sliding window they attempted to characterize the “emotional arcs” of each story. Their goal was to see if there were common patterns.
Turns out, there are!
Of twelve. It’s hard not to notice how Christmas peeks out from under the covers earlier and earlier every year. One of my more recent seasonal traditions is noting how soon the first signs appear. The commercial opportunities of Halloween run interference in the fall; this year I found Christmas spoor on November 1st.
How Thanksgiving managed to escape heavy commercialization escapes me. Maybe people are spent out due to those two spendiest of holidays bracketing either side. Attics now store as many boxes of Halloween decorations as they do Christmas ones!
I guess the long foreplay is a good thing considering the instant exit once the deed is done.
Yesterday I introduced you to the idea of words as numbers. There are many ways to create a map between words and numbers. For example, we could assign them the number that represents their position in the dictionary. That would make words that start with “A” have smaller numbers while words that start with “Z” would have the largest numbers.
There are also ways to treat the words themselves as numbers. We can interpret the letters the same way we do digits. Each letter has an assigned numeric value, and then a string of letters—just like string of digits—forms a number. The scheme I showed you yesterday allows us to treat (only!) single words as numbers.
Now let’s extend this so that entire sentences—or even entire books—become numbers!
I was exposed to Shakespeare in high school. We read several of his plays in various English classes. I took to it about the same as most high school kids. That is, I found it opaque and dull (like “classical” music). The first glimmer of the magic and wonder of Shakespeare came only when I became involved in staging some of his plays in drama class.
When I was a sophomore, I helped stage—and acted in—our high school drama group’s presentation of Hamlet (one of his greatest works). I’ve written about my high school drama teacher; he was a professional theatre person who’d gone into teaching (while waiting for his big break in Hollywood). Our production of Hamlet received rave reviews from local papers. “Better than most college productions,” they said!
As a direct consequence of that production, Hamlet is my favorite play!