Thursday, November 11, 2010

Annoying Words: Introduction.

The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
(or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Most of us who speak the same language -say English - think we really are speaking the same language to each other.

This is simply not true.

OK, yes, two people may be speaking Bostonian English or Quebec French to each other but, in my own opinion, everyone - every single person - has their own personal dialect.  (It’s actually called an idiolect*.)  Every person expresses ideas slightly differently, using a unique variety of words and turns of phrase to convey subtle nuances.

This often causes problems.

Pick two friends, spouses, co-workers, or strangers that use the same mother tongue. Now, tell them to converse about a deep issue, something where sharing complicated and imprecise ideas is critical, such as science, religion, personal politics, or who agreed to wash the dishes. Then, listen to them closely as they discuss—listen to what they’re saying and, to the best of your perception, what they are meaning.

Now, mostly they will agree or disagree about things for reasons that are clear and obvious.

However, I guarantee that soon they will sharply disagree over some point or another but, in this case, an outside observer will notice they are actually trying to say the same thing to each other, each using their own slightly different, vocabulary. What is causing the problem is that one person is interpreted the other person’s choice of words in a different way.

You can see this everywhere. Try it the next time you’re arguing with someone—especially if the argument popped up in the middle of what had been a perfectly nice conversation. It’s likely each of you may find you’ve been speaking your own idiolect and not quite understanding the other’s use of what seem to be basic words and phrases.

This is more easily seen in dialogs between groups of people: those that share a similar culture— be it social (London, New York, East Texas, South Africa) or professional (engineering, biology, construction, plumbing).

Within any of these groups, a common set of specialized words and phrases exists that is part of their local worlds. Sometimes this involves slang, whether it’s slang for "being drunk" or the word that describes atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen arranged in a particular way.

Other times, they might use common English words in a way that is somewhat different than the standard English-wide meaning of the word.

This special talk within a group is what makes it easier for the people in these groups to work together. If everyone knows the exact meaning of these special words or phrases, it provides a shorthand, a common way of expressing ideas within the group. On the whole, it works well for that purpose.

But... when someone talks outside of the group to others, difficulties arise.

Sometimes there are simple difficulties, such as being utterly clueless as to what the person is saying. Think about the meaning of, for instance, "the polypeptide is hydrolyzed to its constituent amino acids," or, "the exhaust flange is connected to the manifold". Do you know what either of those mean? If so, you are part of at least one or two professional cultures.

Now, if you say those phrases to people outside your special groups, they probably will not understand you in the slightest. And that’s fine, because it’s obvious that one is speaking gibberish to the other. No one can misunderstand the meaning. They just can’t understand it at all.

The bigger problem—the one that causes serious issues—is actually the one that looks less important: when common English words are used but don’t mean quite the same thing outside the group as they do within the group.

Therein lay disasters of communication, waiting to erupt.

And frankly, it kinda annoys me that these problems are left there to fester and cause problem after problem.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean by using just a small handful of examples showing the source and consequences of the different meanings of common words to different groups of people. In this case, the speaking or writing of these words will be (mostly) coming from the world of the sciences while the people hearing the words are all of us in the general public.

And to avoid any absolute PANIC that the word "science" may cause, I’ll add that these examples are all just one word apiece and they are all familiar English words. There is no "deoxyribonucleic acid" or "quantum chromodynamics" here.

These examples are just words we all think we know. But the way in which the meaning of these words can differ - just a bit - can cause many problems of communication. Some problems are merely slightly humorous, while others have have results so pervasive as to affect law-making and our public discourse.

So... among other attempts at writing here, I think I'd like to do this as a continuing series of posts just based on this issue alone. In the post title, I'll just call the series Annoying Words**.

Here's a quick list of words I'd like to tackle. I'd probably do them in whatever actual order I want.

"Theory": Hey, waddaya know! I already wrote something about this one!
"Planet" - THIS WORD NEEDS TO BE GONE!  - Here is where I set the stage for the "Planet" problem.  The link for my solution will come when I actually write it.

* Personally, I came to this conclusion simply by many experiences – some quite personal - of listening to people talk around and over each other, practically seeing the moment that communications collapse.  Turns out, as I was informed by a friend who also works in the wordsmithing trade, this "private dialect" concept actually has a name!  Who knew I could be so good at "discovering" things about which everyone else has long ago written reams of papers.  This may be why I felt the research life was no longer for me.

** To be clear, these words do not annoy me in themselves.  They annoy me because of their repeated role in the breakdown - and abuse - of communication.

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