There’s an old saying in the military that “loose lips sink ships.” This is a reference to operational security, in that gossiping to people carelessly about the location of your unit or your deployment plans could start a chain of gossip that eventually falls into enemy hands and compromises missions.
I think loose language can “sink ships” too, by which I mean to say that careless language can have catastrophic consequence. The catalyst for writing this post was the musings of one blogger
who likened Plato and Socrates unto poets (actually, in her words, “Plato and Socrates WERE poets”), despite admitting to having never read either of them.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively minor misuse of language with little consequence. Sometimes it is fun to make metaphors and explore them, though the responsible thing to do would be to assert your metaphors as such, rather than as facts. (It is one thing to say that Plato and Socrates were poets, metaphorically speaking, and quite another to say that they were poets and leave it at that.) However, I believe this is representative of a modern tendency to expand the meanings of words with vagaries that bog everyone down with needless communication loss. Nuance and ambiguity have their applications and value in certain arenas (literature, poems, “art”) but the increasing intrusions of such sensibilities into everyday language and more mundane pursuits (such as science, debate, and politics) is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst.
I’ll give an example to illustrate my point.
Imagine, if you will, a good natured, attractive and popular girl in high school who is genuinely kind to everyone. (Yes, this is a hypothetical situation.) She often tosses around the phrase “I love you” or any variation thereof (“love ya,” “lots of love,” so on and so forth). Suppose she sees a boy sitting by himself at lunch, and emboldened by her noble spirit, deigns to sit with him and have a chat, as she feels it is wrong for someone to eat lunch by themselves. Suppose also this boy is known to be something of a pariah, not the sort popular people should be seen with – this does not deter our young heroine. Once the lunch period breaks after a pleasant conversation that seems to have cheered the boy’s mood considerably, she departs, finishing the conversation with her ritual employment of the “I love you” phrase. This creates a wellspring of emotion in the boy, who understands love as a very serious concept shared only by very important people. He tries to actively pursue this girl, perhaps coming off as creepy, and only after several months figures out that she did not mean the word “love” in the same way as he understood it, and winds up dejected and heartbroken as a result.
Who is at fault here? Should we be angry with the girl for her careless use of language, or should we attribute culpability to the boy who should have known better? Before we start playing the blame game, maybe it would be informative to look up the word “love” in a dictionary. I propose we use dictionary.com, as it is a freely available web dictionary which many people probably use to try and get a clearer sense of what a word means. Here’s what dictionary.com has to say about love:
love [luhv] Show IPA noun, verb, loved, lov⋅ing.
1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
3. sexual passion or desire.
4. a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person; sweetheart.
5. (used in direct address as a term of endearment, affection, or the like): Would you like to see a movie, love?
6. a love affair; an intensely amorous incident; amour.
7. sexual intercourse; copulation.
8. (initial capital letter) a personification of sexual affection, as Eros or Cupid.
9. affectionate concern for the well-being of others: the love of one’s neighbor.
10. strong predilection, enthusiasm, or liking for anything: her love of books.
11. the object or thing so liked: The theater was her great love.
12. the benevolent affection of God for His creatures, or the reverent affection due from them to God.
13. Chiefly Tennis. a score of zero; nothing.
14. a word formerly used in communications to represent the letter L.
Clear as mud! There’s obviously some non-sequitur definitions here, but there’s also a lot of room for personal interpretation. Definitions 5, 9, and perhaps 2 might support the girl’s interpretations and defend her from blame, whereas definitions 1, 4, and 6 lend themselves to the boy’s interpretation. Moreover, the preponderance of definitions that deal with sexual matters lend credibility to an interpretation of “love” more serious than the one understood by the girl, giving more favor to the boy. But before we go around blaming people for the nasty feelings and disappointment the boy wound up with, let me change the scenario just a hair.
Imagine the scenario is exactly the same as before. The girl and boy still have all the same qualities, to include the girl’s motivation for engaging the boy in conversation. Suppose now that the only difference in the situation is that, through the course of conversation, the girl feels a deep and profound emotional connection to the boy. She begins to see him in a new light, and she thinks that she might be falling for him. When the lunch bell rings and they have to part ways, she has only a small window of opportunity to express her epiphany, and she expresses to the boy “I love you.” Later, the boy carefully considers the situation and perhaps even looks up the word “love” to help guide his actions. He knows that she is given to using the word “love” rather freely, and he is hesitant to emotionally invest himself in a prospect that seems likely to end in disappointment. He therefore concludes that she meant “love” in a less profound way (more like definition 9, say) – after all, she was probably just taking pity on him for sitting alone and was being a good Samaritan, love they neighbor and all that. The girl is anguished over the boy’s seeming rejection and complete indifference to her profound expression of her deepest feelings and now feels similar levels of disappointment and dejection as our boy had felt in the previous scenario.
WHO TO BLAME
If you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s kind of a trick question. Neither the boy nor the girl is at fault nor responsible for the miscommunication and resultant emotional harm caused, in either scenario. Sure, perhaps we could chide them for not being “more clear” or not “elaborating” more, but life is rarely perfect and there are times where we only get one shot at phrasing something. Perhaps I could have concocted a more compelling situation to convince you of the “one-shot” angle, but that’s ultimately irrelevant to my main point. My main point is that our language has become too vague, and there are, often, far too many different definitions for the same word. Simple math will tell you that as you increase the number of disparate definitions for the same word, you increase the odds that the speaker and listener of any conversation will have different operating definitions of that word.
What do I mean by operating definitions? I contend that people are not dictionaries, and they do not walk around carrying seven different definitions for the same word in their head – at least not for every single word that has multiple definitions. In general, it is more natural for a person to pick one definition and stick to it – though they may be aware to varying degrees of competing definitions. There may be cases where they are totally unaware of the different definitions a word has. In any case, the operating definition a person has is their assumed definition – the one they use when they either speak or hear the word.
In scenario 1, the girl’s operating definition of the word “love” was, we’ll say, definition/meaning 9 provided above. The boy’s operating definition was, we’ll say, definition/meaning 4. It is natural to assume, when conversing with another person, they understand the definitions of the words that we use – especially very common words, like “love.” When the girl used her operating definition, she meant to convey meaning 4, and assumed that the boy received meaning 4. What actually happened was that the boy received meaning 9, because he had a different operating definition of the same word. Meaning 4 and meaning 9 are different enough that, at one point in time, they used to be separate words. Instead of saying love when we meant meaning 9, we might say something like “I like you” or “I care about you.”
The only change in scenario 2 is that the operating definitions are reversed, more or less (to get real technical, the boy didn’t have an operating definition, perhaps because he was cognizant of the disparate definitions available to the word love, and reasoned his way to definition 4). Sometimes we get the opportunity to work out miscommunication that results from different operating definitions of the same word – questions like “what do you mean by that?” provide an opportunity to clarify what’s really going on in a conversation. But it is naive to assume that we always have this luxury, and especially in the high-pace arena of politics and public debate, rarely is time spent working out the definitions of important words under discussion. (See this post
for an example of some slippery words. Other ones off the top of my head: communism, socialism, feminism, Marxism, universal health care… there’s probably others, but I don’t watch the news overmuch because I easily get peeved at careless use of language.) Miscommunication that would be relatively harmless in the private sphere suddenly becomes a matter of national import and grave concern.
Perhaps you think I am exaggerating? I think “feminism” more than proves my point. Most people have an operating definition of feminism as being a movement that is concerned chiefly with “equal rights for equal work,” (operating definition A) but that is a far cry from what feminism actually is. Some critics, who are familiar with what feminism actually is (operating definition B
), decry it. Their message is often dead on arrival, however, because most people assume that operating definition A is what is under assault when they hear the word “feminism.” This doesn’t even account for the slipperiness of operating definition A (any time I hear the word “equal” in the context of political discourse, I become wary) either.
I see two possible solutions. Perhaps this means I am stuck in a fallacious way of thinking (the false dilemma), who knows. In any case, the first option is to have all of the dictionaries of the world revised overnight to remove ambiguities from every definition, and to ensure that each and every word means only one thing. The second option would be to have the speaker of the word clarify before transmitting their message precisely what operation definition they are using. “I love you” becomes something like “I love you…by which I mean to say like a neighbor.” Alternative options may exist on some kind of gradient between the two, and allowing for the listener to ask for clarification when possible.
I believe the most sensible and practical approach is to hold the speaker more accountable for misuse of language or vagaries. The speaker has more opportunity to clarify intent before speaking than the listener often has opportunity to clarify after something has been spoken. This is especially the case in one way communications – things like emails from your boss that you cannot respond to. In two way communication, things can be more efficient and productive if the speaker exercises caution and carefully considers what words are employed, clarifying murkiness as it comes up. For example: “I think that feminism – by which I mean the virulent brand promulgated by…”
Nobody can be perfect, and I know I am not. But we can all strive to be better speakers and be more mindful of what we say before we say it. Creating ambiguity and nuance is great when we’re writing literature or poems.
But, as I hinted at when I started this post, we’re not all poets. Intentionally inflating the definition of “poet” (for example) to include everyone (such as people who do not compose poetry) represents a behavior that is antithetical to the way I approach communication.