Our questionable use of words


We, as humans, pride ourselves on our superior communications skills. Next to walking upright and operating can openers, it’s the single most important attribute that separates us from our pets and our food.

Over the last 40,000 years (give or take) we have refined our communications skills to the point that we now have a mere 6,000 recognized languages.

At that rate, in the next 1,000 years or so we can expect human languages to be refined down into a hybrid of Mandarin Chinese and the version of Spanish not actually spoken in Spain.

That is, of course, with the exception of the internal revenue code, which will continue to be written in its own form of English, and the labels of overpriced/overrated wine, which will still be printed in French.

But, for now we can continue to enjoy our blissfully complicated, convoluted and con­fusing language. From 26 seemingly simple letters we can weave such wonderfully inane words as floccinaucinihilipilification (the estimation of a thing as worthless). Or, you could try antitransubstantiationalism on for size, which would mean that you adhere to the floccinaucinihilipilification of transubstantiationalism.

And just to prove that we, as speakers of the international language of commerce, can use really, really long words, we somehow came up with a 1,185 character long word for a type of virus that infects tobacco plants (I think it was coined in Texas).

To make sure that we can adequately manage all of our communications skills we have developed incredible tools that allow us to check our e-mail, talk on the phone, take pictures, send text messages and drive all at the same time.

We walk about like cyborgs with enough electronics technology hanging on our belts and out of our ears to rival Top Secret military programs of just a few years ago.

And yet, for all of our different languages, wonderfully long words and intricate technology, we still seem to adhere to two simple modes of communication when it comes to talking about the things that are really important. I’m excluding from this classification the perverse meme-ification of human communication. Here, I’m just talking about those uncomfortable instances in which we must undertake that antiquated practice of speaking face-to-face with an actual human being.

I’m not trying to diminish the value of casual friendly conversation; it’s an invalu­able part of our community life. But when it comes to speaking up and saying the things that we really need to say, that we really should say, we tend to either say nothing at all or to cloak our aversion to saying something meaningful in a lot of words that say virtually nothing.

Adherents to the first school of verbal communication talk about life’s important topics with a miserly economy of words.

They, and I confess I was once one of them, can travel in a vehicle with close friends and family for hours without saying anything more emotional or profound than “I’m hungry,” or “look at that,” or perhaps “look out for that deer,” which all-too-often uttered too late for the hapless critter.

Proficient followers of the second school of communication, however, can expend incredible amounts of time, energy and pre­cious oxygen to say precisely nothing.

Anyone who has sat through a gradua­tion address, an average campaign speech or a below-average philosophy class knows that you can listen to an hour of ceaseless prattle and come away knowing less than when you started.

Basically, when we are faced with life’s difficult topics we tend to avoid saying what we really mean either by saying nothing at all or by saying everything but what we feel and mean.

Whether it’s expressing our true emotions to our friends and loved ones, or stepping out and facing the risks of disagreeing with convention, we all-too-often refrain from communicating our feelings and beliefs until it is too late.

Could it be that our communications skills fall short of the transparency achieved by young children, who have yet to learn the elaborate techniques required to hide their true beliefs?

It’s worth considering that possibility. And, if we find that the answer is ‘yes,’ we would be well served by investing the effort to un-learn the evasive communications that build barriers between ourselves, our community and our best potential.

3 thoughts on “Our questionable use of words

  1. We are trained, once we start school, in the arts of obfuscation and double speak. As I was told when I started really writing school papers… if you can’t dazzle them with diamonds, baffle them with bullsh*t. True communication is often unwanted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow… a word 1,185 characters long … and I thought antidisestablishmentarianism was a mouthful. I really like your opening paragraph, by the way. And just as an aside, I’ve sat through lectures on Shakespeare where I’m sure I’ve come away stupider than when I arrived.

    Liked by 1 person

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