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September 25th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to John McWhorter who is a linguist, a professor at Columbia University, the host of the Lexicon Valley podcast, and a veritable badass.
As a word is slapped onto a greater variety of things, it loses power. At first, the relationship between the growth of the word and its power seems to have a linear relationship: as the word grows, so seems its power. And in the beginning this may be the case, practically speaking. But if language fails to achieve a balance, the trajectory of growth designs and initiates its own symmetrical decay.
But what does it mean for a word to have power? Each word here used operates in conjunction with others. In fact, these words - all words - rely on the networked family in which they exist to have any meaning or power at all. And that’s exactly what power is for a word, the unit of power is meaning. Power, here, is an appropriate term and in quite a literal way because the discussion revolves around the work a word can do. Power is literally defined as the amount of work achieved during a given unit of time. We might momentarily imagine a sort of linguistic physics where the power of a word is determined by the density of meaning it conveys within a sentence.
To phrase this in a somewhat less technical way: how useful is a vague word?
Let’s zoom out even further: how useful, or rather frustrating is it when someone speaks in vague and hazy language? Say you are speaking to a friend, or better yet a lover, and neither person can decide what to do that evening, whether to go out for dinner or cook, and if out to dinner, where to go, what cuisine - we’ve all been there. That hazy cloud of possibilities easily becomes a possible source of infuriation.
No, you decide….
In the context of loved ones the cause is usually altruistic. Each wants the other to be happy, so each is open to anything, and when paired, the good intentions resolve into an unproductive stalemate. How much easier is it when one party is very motivated to try and make Thai curry? Everyone is happy, because there’s something specific on the table.
The example juxtaposes the difference between specificity and vagueness. There is a trade off between utility and possibility. The more possibilities at hand, the less utility we get. The more specific we get, the more utility we have.
To help illuminate this trade off in terms of language, there is a particularly good example of a metastasizing word that has become crippled by its own growth.
That word is truth.
Truth used to have a definitive meaning. It was singular in its specificity, and this specificity was fundamental to its ability to convey honesty. But now we have your truth, and my truth.
How exactly can two truths exist? Certainly we’ve never had much of a problem with multiple truths, but this has always been in the sense that there are multiple aphorisms. It’s akin to saying there are many true statements. The key is that these each regard different contexts, whereas the recent bastardization of truth into my truth and your truth muddies the water of context. The silly thing is that people are really talking about perception and opinion. When people say my truth and your truth, they’re really talking about their opinion. But as words go, opinion is a lacklustre weakling, and truth carries a splendid and princely quality.
In the absence of a well founded opinion formed through rigorous thinking, the same opinion was simply branded with a better sounding name: truth.
The trade off, of course, is that the word ‘truth’ begins to lose its power as it is applied to more and more opinions, and soon enough it will means as much and as little as the word ‘opinion’. And in the meantime, we lose out on the utility of an important word, leading to more confusion and misunderstanding.
This has happened many times and it continues to happen. Another example is the word ‘special’. Perhaps as a byproduct of the ill-conceived self-esteem movement several decades hence, people began to see the word ‘special’ as differential in an offensive way. The end result is trophies for participation, and as it’s been aptly summed up many times: if everyone is special then no one is special.
Compare a word like ‘truth’, or ‘special’ to a word like Orca, or better yet, mammal. Orca is a subset of the word mammal, and mammal defines the broadest ways that a whale is different from a crocodile. Orca and crocodile might seem more specific than the word mammal because they are subsets of the umbrella terms mammal and reptile, but the word mammal reptile retain their own carefully regulated specificity. The relationship between all of these words is fairly solid, and that structure allows for meaning to retain its power. But if, for example, some brilliant new startup out of silicone valley decided to name their latest product Orca, suddenly the word composed of o-r-c and a in that particular order loses just a little bit of it’s power. And the reason is because there is - imaginably - a sentence where someone uses the word ‘Orca’ and the person listening to this sentence can’t tell if the word refers to the animal or the tech company. The word has become a bit more vague.
Returning to the word truth, we need only ask: how useful is truth if there are 8 billion different varieties of it?