Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sure, he did - but it hardly made up for such a crappy Summer

One of the famous quotes from Alice in Wonderland is "'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 whole passage is interesting, but I want to focus on just this bit.

Second things first, the second most notable thing in this quote is the placement of the word "rather" - so precise, suggesting (1) a tone that was more "scornful" than any other adjective, and (2) that the scornfulness was not excessive.

The first most notable thing in this quote, as applied to how people use words, is how it is both (1) generally untrue and (2) generally true.

(1) It is generally untrue:

This line can be taken to mean that, with Humpty Dumpty as our example, we each privately decide words mean whatever we want, regardless of what other people think those words mean. I find that hackle-raising. It could mean
  • (a) we make sounds that sound like words while expecting people to read from our minds thoughts bearing little external relation to the sounds we make; or
  • (b) we are cunningly sloppy, accomplishing naughty ends through (technically) virtuous means, stretching facets of meanings into loopholes in truth, and lazily tending toward presidential signing statements and viral marketing campaigns and worse.

(a) and (b) are common enough in this bad old world, and put a fair reading on that quote, but that reading is generally untrue because we humans usually do purposefully use words that mean to others what they mean to us.

In other words, as a practical matter, words work. People buy and sell, travel to new places, do their work, meet and fall in love, all using words to communicate - much gets accomplished, and so it is clear that this hackle raising reading of Humpty Dumpty's statement is untrue for most of us most of the time.

And yet! Even beyond items (1)(a) and (1)(b) above,

(2) It is generally true:

Surprisingly often, we use words without thinking about what other people think they mean. The problem with that is, if a word is to have meaning at all, multiple people must ascribe a given meaning to that word. We say or write things without considering them, assuming our natural usage will carry our thoughts smoothly to others. Note the key verb in the quote - "choose" - and reflect for a moment. We use the words that mean what we say, but often
  • (a) we fail to think through all the possible things a given word can mean, or
  • (b) fail to narrow down a word's general region of meaning to the relevant specific meaning.
Do you think about what a word means before you use it? 50% of the time? 85% of the time? 99% of the time?

If I take into account both speaking and writing, I have about a B average. An average average, even. I do try, though, and I urge others to try. And, through this blog, I hope to lend my strength to more general resistance against sloppy usage. If I felt more comfortable flinging alarmist statements without preambles, I would simply say "We are letting each other get away with critical meaning failure!"

One of my pet peeves is contemporary usage of the word "unique" - what does it mean? If widget A is unique, there is not one other widget like it anywhere in the world. If there is a remarkably similar widget somewhere, one could then say that widget A is "practically unique" or "almost unique" - that is fine. However, even if there were never another such widget as widget A anywhere ever, and it is totally blowing everyone's minds, one could NOT then say that widget A is "very unique" - it is as unique as ever, neither more nor less. There is no such thing as more or less unique. That is, potentially, the whole power of the word, a power we waste through improper usage. [There is a bible verse about saltiness that could go here.]

When you said something was "very unique", did you mean to say "very rare" or "very cool" or "I feel like talking all fancy, so I say 'simplistic' instead of simple, and I might as well say 'very unique' because I am not really thinking this through, nor am I referring to a dictionary, ever"?

Language is one of those aspects of human society about which it may be said that the individual's best interest is also the group's best interest - more words, more meaning, more knowledge, and more understanding. What this adds up to is more power. Power in the "sword and shield" sense. A shield - to avoid misunderstanding in yourself and others. A sword to make your arguments clear and persuasive, and to eviscerate the false arguments of others.

There is a lot of work to be done, cleaning up all this mess of propaganda, politicking, and marketing, and we will never win any war against them, only certain battles. So let's be a little cheesy about it and say "People of good will and great vocabularies! Gird your loins and grab your dictionaries! The fight is all!"

6 comments:

Jeff W said...

That was a thoroughly delightful post! (Not rather a delightful post.)

For some reason I came across that statement of Mr Dumpty's just the other day, so it was quite a surprise to see it here.

I suppose you and I can only accede to the extraordinary powers of perception of others who realize just how unique some things are.

My pet peeve is the misuse of the word literally but I won't bother to give examples here as there's an entire blog—yeah, literarily—dedicated to tracking abuse of the word. (Then again, why second guess Louisa May Alcott?)

As for your trenchant question

When you said something was "very unique", did you mean to say "very rare" or "very cool" or "I feel like talking all fancy, so I say 'simplistic' instead of simple, and I might as well say 'very unique' because I am not really thinking this through, nor am I referring to a dictionary, ever"?

I'll place my bets on #3.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

[blushing curtsey]

It is about time I found a suitable subject to harness my rabble-rousing ardor!

Karen M said...

If I felt more comfortable flinging alarmist statements without preambles, I would simply say "We are letting each other get away with critical meaning failure!"

Certified' ...please don't restrain yourself too much. Alarmist statements can lead to great discussions. ;~)

As I was reading your post again (too tired last night to think), I was picturing a simple line-graph wtih unique in the center, and cool, rare, etc. scattered along the continuum. "Scattered" because we don't all assign them the same value. As you say in this post.

I do try to think about word usage during the day, maybe not as much as when I'm writing something new myself, but only because I actually have to send the email or whatever, and can't let it wait for a day or more.

Jeff, if you're still here... feel free to add those links to the blogroll, if you think they are appropriate. The process is pretty self explanatory.

[Moving day at my daughter's today; I'll be mostly off-line. ...sign]

William Timberman said...

There's an art to this, surely. Uncommon contexts, metaphorical extensions and the like, in the hands of a master, are breadcrumbs leading us into a richer world.

In the hands of a propagandist, drawn into base service as a mechanism to turn black into white, they are nothing of the sort. But which is which? Isn't that the conundrum of the age, and what has drawn us, wittingly or unwittingly, to this place?

alienvoord said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alienvoord said...

"When you said something was "very unique", did you mean to say "very rare" or "very cool" or "I feel like talking all fancy, so I say 'simplistic' instead of simple, and I might as well say 'very unique' because I am not really thinking this through, nor am I referring to a dictionary, ever"?"

I feel like I'm pointing out the obvious here, but Merriam-Webster lists "being without a like or equal", "distinctively characteristic", and "unusual" as three of the meanings of "unique".