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Are We Trapped By Words?

By Wil Forbis

Trapped By WordsWords are like air. They're so ubiquitous, so "everywhere" that we easily forget about them even though they are essential to everything we do. Take away people's words and, like taking away their oxygen, everything comes to a grinding halt.

Examine any activity and you soon see how essential words are to its performance. Catching the bus somewhere? You need to identify the bus stop and figure out what bus goes where, two tasks for which words are essential. Telling your gardener to remove a shrub? Impossible without instructions involving written or spoken commands.

Words describe and define things. They are key for conversing about everyday objects like food or appliances, but they become even more vital when describing ideas and concepts like "justice" or "love" or "human rights." Wars have been fought over and societies built from these concepts. Without words, the moral progress of humanity would have hit a brick wall eons ago.

You can think of words as "thought tools." Real tools---hammers, shovels and so on---aid in the construction of buildings and physical objects. Thought tools like words, phrases and metaphors aid in the construction of ideas*.

* German philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger excelled in constructing complex and dense philosophical ideas. It was to their advantage that the German language---famous for its rich vocabulary---gave them the plethora of thought tools they needed to form their ideas.

It's easy to think of words as tiny miracles. But do they have a dark side? Do they in some ways hinder communication and blind us to possibilities? If so, how?

One obvious problem with words is that they can easily be used imprecisely. Two people in a conversation may employ slightly different definitions for a specific word and, as a result, communication goes awry. This is especially true when translating between different languages. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet leader Khrushchev was subject to a potentially disastrous mistranslation, as this BBC article notes...

In 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was interpreted as saying “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow. The phrase was plastered across magazine covers and newspaper headlines, further cooling relations between the Soviet Union and the West.

Yet when set in context, Khruschev’s words were closer to meaning “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in”. He was stating that Communism would outlast capitalism, which would destroy itself from within, referring to a passage in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that argued “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” While not the most calming phrase he could have uttered, it was not the sabre-rattling threat that inflamed anti-Communists and raised the spectre of a nuclear attack in the minds of Americans.

Had things gone a bit differently, words---simple, little words---would have brought about World War III.

Miscommunication and mistranslation are obvious problems with words. Subtler dangers exist as well. Once we define an object or idea with a word, we limit our conceptualization of what that object or idea can do. For example, imagine you are pruning a small hedge. Your shears break and you find yourself mentally reviewing your tool collection for some other gardening instrument that could replace them for the job. It never dawns on you to try a pair of scissors because, by your definition, scissors are not a "gardening tool." Your categorization has blinded you to a certain possibility*.

* UPDATE: 10/5/20. In the time since I first wrote this at least one person has questioned this example. Would you really ever use scissors to prune a hedge? Wouldn't you be worried about damaging the scissors? Let's just say they are a pair of throwaway scissors you have no interest in keeping.

In the arts, progress is often made when an innovator throws out old definitions. Marcel Duchamp argued that found objects could be called art, a category that at that point had been reserved for paintings, sculptures and the like. Similarly, composer John Cage believed that any sound, or no sound at all, could be called music. These two men helped redefine the lexicon of their disciplines.

Politicians are acutely aware of how words can frame and even trap ideas. Political campaigns are rife with phrases like "trickle down economics," "stagflation" and "welfare queens." These expressions try to steer the public's interpretation of an idea or law in a positive or negative direction. We are wise to keep an eye out for such rhetorical judo.

Marketers are also constantly playing with words to reinvigorate old ideas. I recently stumbled across this article on how companies are moving from selling products to selling "experiences.” It states...

...buying is now something that can be done anywhere, and that reaction can be detected in a linguistic shift. “There is no question that people are trying to get away from the use of the word store as well as mall,” says Leonard Schlesinger, a professor of management at Harvard Business School. “They are increasingly perceived as remnants of a retail world which is increasingly under siege.”

When I muse upon the limits of words an interesting thought occurs: is it possible to break free entirely from the shackles of words? To think without language? I think we all do this from time to time when an idea comes to us as a sudden, non-verbal realization. We observe that we left our keys in the car but we don't actually think, "I left my keys in the car!" The notion is wrapped in a mysterious thought-bundle---some words, perhaps, combined with images and other ways of knowing. It must be something like how Helen Keller thought, before she was given the gift of language.

However, we are enslaved by words most of the time. They are so integrated into our lives and minds that they could not be removed without rendering us incapable of survival. At best, we can simply acknowledge that words, like everything else, have their limits.

What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.