On Words, as they Relate to Worldview

I once had an online conversation with a writer who really, really doesn’t like me.  We were arguing about something and he responded, that writers should be careful of the words and phrases they use, as they need to be precise.

He was objecting to my use of the phrase “knee-jerk” to describe a decision that he claimed had been taken after consulting everyone involved.  While the original discussion that engendered his comment was never enough to really get my juices flowing, his statement about the importance of precise language stuck with me (you may draw your own conclusions regarding what interests me from the preceding sentence).

Of course, it’s probably a good thing for prose intended for publication to be quickly and easily understandable by the widest audience possible.  But is it really that important outside of the confines of a book?  Even within those confines, I’d argue that a certain amount of transcending the rules is acceptable, so you can imagine that precision in daily language is something that I really don’t think is all that important.

xkcd.com recently summed up my view of this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 2.06.02 PM

Link to the original comic here.

Sums it up, doesn’t it?  It just seems to me that if people understand what you’re talking about, it’s fine.  I have worked with a large number of accountants and engineers in my time and, as you can imagine, many of them disagree vehemently with this point of view.  And yes, I’ve seen a strong correlation between people who need everything to be in neat little labelled boxes and people who think this way – but that’s not the point today.  I really want to focus on the language implications, because these are the ones that have more to do – in my opinion – with being a global citizen.

How often do you find yourself involved in a conversation with someone in which language barriers mean that you have to pay attention to the context of what the person is saying in order to be able to understand a particular word?  If you move in the circles I do – and I assume that anyone reading this probably does – you often find yourself trying to understand some heavily accented English, or even trying to make yourself understood by reviving those old French lessons.  When you are in the latter position, my structured adversary is probably not the kind of person you want listening to you.

Experience teaches one to relax this requirement for others, and eventually brings one to understand that it isn’t all that important. I think what irritated me most about the original discussion was that he wasn’t focusing on the message but on the language, which has in human history led to a whole bunch of stupid (including the once-relevant PC parrots) , and is something I can never understand.

So I have more questions than answers for you.  Was he doing it on purpose to bug me?  I doubt it – he seemed genuinely mad at me for using the phrase.  But it was clear from the context that it was just a place holder for “making an insufficiently reasoned decision and the wrong one, to boot”, which leads me to the conclusion that he chose to interpret it that way, and to take umbrage.

In this particular case, it’s his problem…  But what does he need to get over something like this?

Essentially, the best way to get past this is actually to be truly global in your outlook.  A big-picture approach is required, and you really can’t get that from books or from your peers, and you can’t really get that if your main contact with the larger world is online, with people you’ve never met.

So, you ask, where is my nemesis from?

If you guessed he’s an American who doesn’t move too far from his home in the midwest, you get full marks.  No bonus points this time, because we all know it was just too easy.  Of course, this is unfair to many midwesterners who actually have outgrown the limitations of their geography, but such is life when space forces one to generalize…

Anyway, I promised eclectic, and eclectic this blog will be.  Art, travel and guest bloggers are coming now that we’ve goteen some of the philosphy and our first list out of the way…

Stay tuned.

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8 comments

  1. Hmmm…
    I can see a person taking offense at the term “knee-jerk” in this case.
    It may be a correct description, but it might also be unfair.
    Alright, the decision was not an autoresponse;
    it was still perfectily predictable, wasn’t it?
    Something hit a nerve, and someone kicked.
    When an action is predictable, the predictability of the action isn’t dimiinshed by the number of people consulted or how considered each individual response may have been. Taking a survey, tapping everyone’s patella with a little rubber hammer, isn’t really going to change anything, although it will allow us to observe that everyone’s knee jerked, and perhaps argue from this that it wasn’t a knee jerk reaction at all.

    But knowing you, I’m sure you deliberately chose “knee-jerk” for its implication of an action taken with little or no real thought. I think you knew that simply calling it predictiable wouldn’t stir the same defensive feelings necessary to provoke a heated discussion.

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    1. LOL. Are you accusing me of being intentionally controversial? How unusual…

      You are right, of course. The interesting part in this particular case isn’t that they reacted, but the direction in which they reacted. I was actually expecting him to call me names and try to justify a bad decision, but he went off on a tangent about language, and the precision thereof, which caught me off guard, and about which I am still thinking years later.

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  2. Putting your online tiff and the term “knee-jerk” aside, what interested me most in this post was that niggling word “Precision.” Sure, it is no doubt valuable to an engineer, but when applied to art it’s rather ridiculous. It seems as if people do not fully understand that language is a system of symbols, an abstraction and not the things themselves, as Magritte pointed out with his “This is not a pipe” painting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images

    When the words themselves are the medium for art such as in a poem or a novel things become even more slippery. A writer using words to make art sees their flexibility (hopefully), and a lot of the joy in the work comes from discovering ways to use them in uncommon, surprising ways. A successful work is often polysemous, even ambiguous–kind of emphasizing the fact that “the things themselves are real. So who cares?” Loved that cartoon. Things are real, words are not, so have some fun with them. Too many literal thinkers in this world.

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    1. Abdoslutely agreed – that is probably a condensed version of what made me remember the conversation years later. And you expressed it better than I did!

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  3. I think the whole “writers need to be precise” argument when a writer uses words or phrases other writers see as wrong is a standard response in the writing world. I’ve been told basically the same thing, and I’m a poet who definitely understands the power of words and word choices. I’ve been known to ponder for hours over a single word, trying to come up with just the right one, one with just the right meaning and intonation.

    I think an accusation of imprecision when it comes to word choice in these “debates” within the writing community (usually no more than tempests in teapots) is an attempt at sounding all smart and “writerly”. I also think there is an implied insult in such a response. It suggests that you do not choose your words with care or precision, which may be a bad trait for someone claiming to be a writer.

    I’m kind of surprised you weren’t called names, That’s often the typical response in these “debates” (says this Grade-A Five-Star Moron, Internet Weirdo, and Walking Cliche).

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    1. LOL. I wasn’t called names in that particular conversation, but I’ve been called lots of names…

      And I’d definitely agree – a writer’s JOB is to explore the language. Precision is for user’s manuals.

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