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...