Do words matter?

Before we get into whether information is matter, do words matter?

I think I should have learned to care about the precise meaning of words in English lessons at school but I had to settle for learning only to love words. I came late to linguistic pedantry, under the influence a computer scientist. When you are asking a question at the edge of your understanding, someone deliberately failing to understand you because you have not used precisely the correct jargon words is ‘character building’. Someone made me this way deliberately! Blame Education, not me.

We know what we think. Words are the way we attempt to communicate those thoughts into the minds of another. They are thoughts in transit. They need to be accurate and unambiguous, unless we wish to deliberately confuse, like a politician or a poet. I heard that Stephen Fry (off Twitter) claim, on his ‘Fry’s English Delight’ programme on The Wireless, that we cannot think about a concept until we have a word for it. Clearly, that can’t be true. He also said that native Japanese speakers can’t hear the difference between some Western pronunciations, unless they are exposed to them at an early stage in their development. Were those sounds invented in early humans by children, in an early form of Yoof-Speak, unintelligible to their elders? That’s more believable.

How do we agree on the meaning of words? Generally, we don’t. We absorb them. We learn by example. Since the invention of the dictionary, we may look them up occasionally and get them defined in terms of some other words we think we understand better. It’s a bit like science. We build on what we think we Know, until someone embarrasses us by proving we were wrong.

As a culture, we move forward; defining new words, selecting which are the best and most useful ones to keep, refining and adjusting. We develop the nuance and subtlety that allows us to progress then occasionally we make a pointless ritual sacrifice. “Methodology” is such a word. It has a perfectly good meaning: ‘the study of methods’, where a ‘method’ is a way of doing something. Somewhere along the way, some idiot, probably in marketing, decided that if his company was going to make a killing telling people how to glue a few methods together in a fairly obvious way and pretend it was new, they were going to need a more impressive word – maybe something that sounded a bit clever. Ologies are clever, they’re all sciencey! They could call this “methods framework” (yes kids, there was a perfectly acceptable alternative) a “methodology”. They could spend a gazillion Euro-Dollars on promoting it until more people have heard of this usage than of the actual science.

Now what do we call the study of methods? We don’t call it anything without a debate and confusion and ambiguity. It may be easier to just stop THINKING ABOUT methodology altogether and BUY one. They’d like that wouldn’t they?

If someone is trying to sell you a methodology, they’re saying you look the kind of person who doesn’t like to think too much.

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One thought on “Do words matter?

  1. “deliberately failing to understand you because you have not used precisely the correct jargon words is ‘character building’.” – this is me at the dinner table with my children…every day.

    I enjoyed this post. A great end to the short weekend.

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