Real Talk, II: The Magic of Words

This is the second part of the ‘Real Talk’ series, The Magic of Words. Read Part I here.

In this edition of Real Talk, we’re going to be getting into words, your brain, and the fact that semantics are much more important than you’ve ever known. Sounds crazy? Maybe- but stick around and you might just learn something.

Think about a word that you know that has more than one synonym. Actually, if you can, think of the word you know with the most synonyms. Now, this is another one of those times where I can’t guess what you’re thinking about, but let’s pretend like I can.

Whatever word you came up with has a number of words that share the same meaning- that’s what synonyms are, right? Ask yourself- are all the meanings exactly the same? Take ‘happy,’ for example. Is there a difference between ‘happy’ and it’s synonyms, ‘cheerful,’ ‘delighted,’ ‘satisfied,’ and ‘carefree?’ Of course there is- that’s why we have synonyms in the first place. You might be ‘satisfied’ after a big meal, but you might be ‘delighted’ to hear that someone cooked you that meal in the first place. Or maybe, you’re ‘cheerful’ because you love cooking, or ‘carefree’ because you don’t have to cook?

All of these differences may seem subtle, but imagine someone told you the meaning of life is to be ‘happy?’ What kind of happy should you be? If you don’t know the semantics of what that person is talking about, how can you be sure that you understand them?

Interestingly enough, the word with the most synonyms in the English language is ‘drunk.’ Not only does it have the Guiness World Record, there’s also a book about it for whatever reason. I found that to be both comical and very surprising, although after thinking about it, there are so many different words I can think of immediately that describe different types of drunk, different drunk people, and so on. For example, there’s a difference between being ‘tipsy’ and being completely ‘trashed.’ You may want to get ‘wasted’ but not ‘blackout,’ and you may end up only being ‘buzzed’ instead of getting ‘smashed.’ Maybe you were ‘hammered,’ ‘blitzed,’ ‘destroyed,’ ‘housed,’ ‘lit,’ ‘shitfaced,’ ‘sloppy,’ or ‘three sheets to the wind?’ That one’s a phrase, I guess, but still a classic.

Let’s bring it back to some degree of seriousness- you may have heard that the Eskimo people have 50 words for snow. Why do you think that is? Imagine the difference between hiking through a bit of frost and trudging through a few feet of deep, icy packing snow? That could be life or death- and that’s where semantics become important.

Think about yourself- if you’re like me, you think in words. Some people think in pictures, though, and that’s probably worth an article in itself (let me know in the comments what your thoughts are like.) If you think in words, what you can think about is limited by your vocabulary and your understanding of semantics. If you don’t know the difference between ‘rational self-interest’ and ‘selfishness,’ you might think it’s wrong to do things that benefit you. If I don’t know the difference between ‘squeeze’ and ‘compress,’ I might misunderstand the instructions to give CPR- and someone could die.

Words are the mediator between us and our environments.

When we think, we categorize different ideas into concepts, like ‘tree’ vs ‘bush,’ or ‘apple’ vs ‘orange.’ Imagine trying to get someone to get you a pear from the store if you only had the word for fruit? It wouldn’t work very well. On top of that, when we combine these concepts, represented by words, we can make new concepts and new words or phrases. Not every ‘salad’ contains ‘fruit,’ and ‘fruit’ doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with ‘salad,’ but when we combine the words into ‘fruit salad,’ we’ve created a new concept.

This may seem fairly simple, but take it a step further- it’d be hard to understand the economy if you couldn’t differentiate between ‘micro-’ and ‘macro-’ ‘economics,’ and it would be impossible to understand the idea of color if we couldn’t tell the difference between ‘red’ and ‘blue,’ or ‘blue-green’ and ‘bluish-gray.’ Your vocabulary is directly related to your ability to distinguish between different concepts, and by improving your vocabulary and building discipline with your semantics, you can learn to see the world more accurately.

The more disciplined and specific you can be with your use of words, the better you will be able to get your point across. A bad teacher speaks in a language only he or she understands, a  good teacher speaks in a language his or her students will understand, but a great teacher speaks in a language that anyone can understand. Organize the words you use and you will straighten out your thoughts- expand your vocabulary and you will widen your perception of the world.

Read Part III here.

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