But, I Thought you Meant . . .

Why do some people seem to think that language can be treated like art . . . always? Language, of course, frequently finds its expression in art; witness poetry, musical lyrics, etc., but it is not – by itself – a pure art form. Language exists, surely in the context of business and economics, philosophy and religion, as an endeavor of some precision in communication and, dare I use the word, collaboration. People can’t share what they know, or work together on a project for which the outcome they seek is collectively desirous, without having the ability to communicate absent misunderstanding or, at the very least, with a minimum of misunderstanding.

Mathematics is a form of language. Imagine if someone argued that an expression might be used sort of willy-nilly, depending on how one was feeling at the moment. Imagine someone saying, when confronted with the misuse of a mathematical expression, “well, you know what I meant.” Yet, people do this with language all the time. As for my real peeve here, it seems I am often accused of being too “lawyer-like” when I insist on the accurate use of words. I just don’t understand this. Why do people think dictionaries or thesauri exist? For entertainment purposes?

I am not here talking about the incorrect use of “to”, “too”, and “two” or “your” and “you’re”, maddening as those may be. I am more interested in the misuse of synonyms, especially when there are crucial differences – subtle as they may be – between one word and another. There’s a reason those words exists and it is directly related to those differences. For instance, let’s look at the differences between the words “lucky”, “privileged”, and “promising” – all three synonymous according to Merriam-Webster online. “Lucky” means “having good luck”. It could easily refer to one instance, however small the result, or an entire lifetime. “Privileged” means having or enjoying a special capability or position based either on happenstance (which would be lucky) or through hard work and successful endeavors. “Promising” means one might become privileged at some point, or successful, but there is no guarantee and it looks to the future, not some result of the past. Both “privileged” and “promising” may contain elements of luck, but they aren’t proper substitutes for the word “lucky”. They are somewhat imprecise synonyms for it.

Now, lest I be accused of a level of curmudgeonliness far exceeding that I am actually guilty of, I am merely attempting to point out how cavalier some can be with language and, when they’re called on it, how adamant I have found some to be in defending what is, in my opinion, an indefensible position. Call me a member of the language police if you will, but I like as much precision in my discussions as possible.

PS – This post was “incited” by a conversation with my wife; a conversation that recurs every now and again ๐Ÿ™‚ Do you think I’m too sensitive? Do you think I used the word “incited” improperly; that I should have used “instigated” or “stimulated” or maybe even “inspired”? Just wondering.

About Rick Ladd

I retired nearly 13 years ago, though I've continued to work during most of the time since then. I'm hoping to return to work on the RS-25 rocket engine program (formerly the SSME) which will power our return to the moon. Mostly I'm just cruising, making the most of what time I have remaining. Although my time is nearly up, I still care deeply about the kind of world I'll be leaving to those who follow me and, to that end, I am devoted to seeing the forces of repression and authoritarianism are at least held at bay, if not crushed out of existence. I write about things that interest me and, as an eclectic soul, my interests run the gamut from science to spirituality, governance to economics, art and engineering. I'm hopeful one day my children will read what I've left behind. View all posts by Rick Ladd

6 responses to “But, I Thought you Meant . . .

  • Mark Eggleston

    I like this post. I have very similar sentiments. I did notice that you have omitted “politics” in your lists of practices where language should or should not be treated as Art. I looked twice but could not find it referenced in either list. I suspect you have an opinion. Perhaps in another post ๐Ÿ˜‰

    PS: Are emoticons art or language?


    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Mark. Long time no talk. I didn’t realize I omitted one of my favorite subjects. To tell the truth, I was mostly venting about a pet peeve I have with any use of the spoken word. It just bothers me that people think words can be so malleable. Perhaps politics is a good place to look at this because so many use words to misrepresent the truth. I consider that not necessarily art (as I think of art being somewhat uplifting of the human spirit), but more as a craft (as in witchcraft) ๐Ÿ˜€

      I guess emoticons are a little of both. They definitely are meant to communicate, which makes them language, but they’re also meant to be (or can be) entertaining. Maybe I will think about this some more. ๐Ÿ˜‰


  • Meesha

    Rick, Rick, Rick….you’re breaking a cardinal rule of blogging!! Never ever write about a “conversation” with your spouse. (Now who is misusing a synomym?) And knowing how “conversations” with spouses can go, incited was probably appropriate. ๐Ÿ™‚

    P.S. missing you at work!


    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Meesh. I know, I know. I had this particular post as a draft for some time. Linda isn’t exactly the only person who does this, btw. I probably could have left her out and everything would have been just fine, but I got carried away – I guess. Fortunately for me, she doesn’t read my blog. So . . . did I hear somewhere that number three is on the way? If so, congratulations! That’s going to change the dynamics again, eh? I’m not going to admonish you for threatening to overpopulate the planet, either ;D.

      Thank you for the P.S. It does my heart good. I really miss you and a lot of others. I don’t miss the bullshit (which seems to be accelerating, actually), but I sure as hell miss my friends and second family. This whole affair has been a drag, and it’s made me feel older in a way I’ve never experienced before. I don’t like it one bit! Any time you feel like meeting for lunch, let me know and I’d gladly make some time.


  • Rebecca

    Thank you for this, pointing out the absurdity and simple-mindedness of people doing this. One of the things that bothers me most is when people “interpret” what I say. Which in effect is people TELLING me what I meant, as if I did not know that myself and was too dumb/strange/Lord-knows-what to just say exactly what I mean, no more and no less.

    Some things really are and should be treated as what they appear on the surface.


    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Rebecca – Thank you for taking the time to comment. I believe it’s considered a good conversational tactic to sometimes repeat what you think others have said, openly requesting either confirmation that your interpretation is correct, or further explanation to assist in comprehension. For example, one might say “Let me see if I understand. What you’re saying is . . . “. This is, I believe, an important tool for achieving mutual understanding and respect. What you’re describing sounds like plain arrogance and rudeness exhibited by people who tend to interpret what everyone says so it fits in with, and supports, their own world view.


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