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Friday, November 23, 2012

Words: not to be trusted

We have interesting dinner conversations. A great fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [who isn't?], Dr Who and some Steam-driven computer games, he was prattling on about time travel and infinite possibilities, portals and worm holes.

   "What's time?" I asked him, innocently. After all, he's nearly twenty, and knows a great deal.

   "Everyone knows what time is," he said, going on to discuss his time travel possibilities.

I know what time travel is," I said, as much as anyone does, which is very little. "I asked you what time was."

   He was sufficiently exercised by my question to get up halfway through his dinner, and go to the font of all knowledge [Wikipedia, I'm guessing] to get some backup.

   He was there a while.

   "It's a dimension," he said as he came back; which were the exact words I used, aloud, at the same time as he said them, "...measured in increments...." The word I used, in concert with his "increments", was "units."

   "Right. Now we can be sure we're talking about the same thing. That we have an agreed definition."

   "It's time he ate that nice piece of fish before it's ruined," his mother said, a trifle schnapperly.

   "I'll tell you what time is. Time's what I've saved quite a few idiots from doing." In the local courtroom or
pro bono up at Glen Innes, she was talking about.

   "...some who probably should have done a stretch," she added.

   We went on to discuss the relationship between time and space, the curvature of the latter – stuff like that.

   It's what we do at our dinner table. But that wasn't exactly what I was going to talk about.

The one thing that's come up again and again in my postings is the unreliability of words to get clear meaning across. Specialists in legal firms and government departments are devoted to clarifying what words mean. The best they can come up with are agreed definitions of words or terms, and these definitions can change quickly.

   Here are just two examples of how words mislead.

   1. Something happens that doesn't conform to what we might think of as "normal". "Ah," says Chris to Sam, "As they say, the exception proves the rule." Chris and Sam nod sagely at each other and walk off.

   "The exception proves the rule." What does that mean?

   What it doesn't mean is that because there's an exception, the rule must be "true".

   The problem lies with the word "proves". Here it's being used in an unusual, almost archaic sense. It means "tests". It tests the rule. It challenges it. Nothing more. It's very far from making the rule any truer.

   2. Chris has been discussing politics with Sam and says, "I was thoroughly exercised by the Prime Minister's views on that."

   Sam is confused. Sam doesn't know quite what to make of the comment. Exercise, as we all know, is good for us, so Chris must have agreed with the PM.

   Chris means just the opposite. Chris has been annoyed about the comment, not enjoying it.

   I've said many times how this lack of clarity with words has caused some of the greatest of human disasters, especially when there's an insistence that a word in a text can mean just one thing.

   When a Sufi said "I am God" he could be, and frequently was, burned at the stake for heresy. A Hindu philosopher understands with crystal clarity what the Sufi means [or meant, poor sod]. In Christianity, "I am God" would be regarded as heretical as well, though the days of physical stake-burning for such theological presumption are over, for the moment at least. Mentally though, there's still a bit of it about.

   The problem lies in two entirely different interpretations of what "I" and "God" mean. Get a room full of twenty people to write down in a sentence what they think these words mean and you'll get twenty different answers. Yet these same people may be willing to kill each other over their conviction about their particular meaning.

   Words, I say again, are good servants, but bad masters. Don't trust them, even though they're what we use for much of our communication – totally, in written conversation. How often does that get misunderstood, particularly without facial and bodily communication to go with it?

    I think that's all the words I'm going to use up on the matter, at long last.

   It is done, it is done...


  1. Thought-provoking, Denis. Our problems may be less racial or religious or cultural than we sometimes think. Our problem is in the difficulty of communicating an exact meaning, even to those of our same race and background.

    I know people who won't go to a non-English speaking doctor ... nothing racial about it ... but no matter how good the doctor may be, there is a communication difficulty. Different cultures, different religions, different emphasis placed on the value of life - all that.

    But at the root of the problem lies the underlying, unsaid language. The subtle meaning, the nuance, the meaningful look. Without it, communication is wooden; it is 'by numbers'.

    Isn't it amazing that we have not evolved a universal single 'first language', keeping perhaps - for old times' - sake our mother tongue as a 'second language?' Would anyone arriving from outer space (to pick up your other comment), really believe that most of the human race could not communicate with so many others?

    It shows the depth of our inability to integrate.

    Know what I mean?

    1. Yes, I believe I do. My point is that no matter what, words are just tools of the trade of communication, and any word usually means what its interpreter wants it to. It is one step above the level of every other misunderstanding through verbalisation.

      I would be more surprised if we had devised a universal language for humankind, given that it's really only a few thousand years at most that 'other' languages were significant in human lives, and probably only a few hundred years that a case for a universal language could be made. The attempt was made to create a common European language with Esperanto, and that has been interesting but unsatisfactory. Language evolution just doesn't work that way, does it?

      And think of the challenge of creating a universal language that would satisfy the Chinese, those on the various Indian scripts, and the Cyrillic-based tongues!

      The Indian answer is to abandon language to go one level deeper, with yoga and meditation. But that's another world.

  2. Here's a comment from the great god Auden (how I do love him) on time (from "As I Walked out One Evening"):

    "But all the clocks in the city
    Began to whirr and chime:
    'Oh let not Time deceive you,
    You cannot conquer time.

    'In the burrows of the Nightmare
    Where Justice naked is,
    Time watches from the shadow
    And coughs when you would kiss.

    'In headaches and in worry
    Vaguely life leaks away,
    And Time will have his fancy
    To-morrow or to-day.

    'Into many a green valley
    Drifts the appalling snow;
    Time breaks the threaded dances
    And the diver's brilliant bow."

    Probably not entirely apposite but I am a secret Auden evangelical

    1. Apposite in many ways, and certainly in the sense that a few well-chosen words can convey meaning far better than a tome on semantics!

      This one has echoes of Shirley's "Death the Leveller".

      Auden was no ordinary wordsmith, was he? One of the greats of the twentieth century. The English haiku man [sort of.]

  3. Now I finally understand why exercise is so disagreeable.

    1. I believe you have exercised your elbow on several occasions that I can recall, with no hint of disagreement!

  4. 'proves' always takes me back to 'proof' as in alcoholic content. I know, I know - sorry.

    But it is such a romantic definition, and given half my family roots are buried deep in English seafaring tradition, that is where my mind turns. And besides, it is the 'proof ultimate' of your own 'tests' comment.

    Hope all is well.


    1. That sort of proof has started [and settled] many an argument confused by words.... :)

  5. Oh yes. I smiled at your 'innocent' remark -I know those! They always mark moments of enlightenment, when your fellow conversationalist is happily re-set on a truer course than they had been heedlessly embarked upon. (phew, terrible sentence!) Like the Fool in the tarot, who is blithely about to step off a cliff. Just yesterday I was reading a Wiki entry (recommended by MD Alamgir) about critical thinking.Its one of the blessings conferred by a university education ,but does tend to make one seemingly picky and argumentative. So enjoyable for the doer, if not always for the one-done-to.

    I'm glad 'twas not I who had to define time. Now I'll go off and think about it as a dimension - is that still the same as the 'measurement'idea of time and creation given in Hinduism, I will ask myself.

    Julie M xx

    1. Heh - it's a terrible sentence, but no worse than many of mine, so I won't underscore it in red and tell you to rebuild it.

      Maybe the Tarot Fool has the right idea. We all have to jump sometimes, and I think Prof Alamgir, a polymath himself, would agree.

      Seeing simplicity in the complicated is the true art. I think it was Einstein who said that things should be made as simple as they need to be, but no less.

      Time as a dimension? Simple.... Space has three dimensions, time just adds that vital fourth. As 3D:2D::4D:3D.

      There you go. Problem solved! And no further from Hindu mathematics and philosophy than it should be, whaddya say?


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