2002/11/26
 
19:22

Y'know What I Mean?

As I observed with great perspicacity in an earlier blog entry, there are a lot of words in the English language.

Gee, I sure hope I used the word "perspicacity" right.

If I have my doubts (well, not any more – I just looked it up), isn't it likely that many readers will just "blip" over the word, assuming I know what I'm doing? If that's the case, why use the word in the first place? To show off? Yeah, yeah, it was precisely the word I wanted in that litotic context, but ...

Uh-oh. Litotic: pertaining to litotes. I stated the opposite of what was true to highlight in an amusing way what ... oh, forget it.

I like to think I have a decent grasp of the English language, but maybe I've gone and deludified myself.

I have to admit that I "blip" over words. For years I've read articles that used terms such as "semiotics" and I've always expected that I'd eventually glean their meaning from context. Nope. People who use the word "semiotics" might as well be talking to me in American Sign Language.

Even words we think we know are open to debate. Hoo, man, are they ever! Check out any newsgroup that deals with spiritual beliefs and watch 'em argue about the definition of "atheism".

I assume you've heard of "Godwin's Law". It states that a debate is doomed once it has devolved to the point where one party likens the other to a Nazi. I propose "Campbell's Law of Lexicographic Rhetoric": "Once somebody whips out a dictionary to prove their point, the debate isn't going anywhere."

Some words I wish I could use more often, but I can't because so few people are familiar with them. "Immanentize" is a great word for the kind of writing I do, but most folks guess that it means something like "inadvertently swallowing a breath mint".

Then there are the words I use kind of wrong. I like to use the word "objectify" to denote the actualization of reification. Gah! Even I'm confused, and I know what I mean! I suppose I'd be safer inventing the verb "objectificate".

I'm not against neologisms; I've invented some words in my time. I've written several articles explaining what I call "antiprocess". The problem with inventing a word is that you think you own it, and it's very tempting to make the definition a moving target. Even if you stick to your original meaning, though, difficulties arise.

"My" word "antiprocess" gained some currency on an online system during the 80's. At one point, a fellow who'd never heard of me disputed my use of the word. He spent some time berating me for using it wrong.

It could have been a delicious moment, akin to that scene in the movie "Annie Hall" where an autodidact is spouting off about what media guru Marshall McLuhan was really saying. At that point, Woody Allen brings forth McLuhan, who tells the guy that he's full of baloney. Allen wryly comments to the camera, "If only life were like this!"

The fact is, though, that nobody ever "owns" any word. Language evolves. As recently as 1943 (according to my outdated Oxford dictionary), the word "terrific" meant "engendering terror". Assuming "my" word does gain some popularity, who knows what it'll mean a few decades from now?

At that point, I'll be faced with the weird experience of looking up a word I invented to find out if I'm using it right.

Email  |  Permalink  |  Re-read  |  Top  |  FAQ  |  Archive