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Davis, California

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Column: On the word

There’s only one difference in life; we either give opportunities a shot, or we don’t.

And to me words are opportunities; each one contains lifelines of possibilities.

We live in a world filled with simple ordinance and limited time, and as a result most people speak in manners that are simply most convenient. A “number two” at In-N-Out means a burger and fries, and that’s it. When people ask how you are, you generally reply that you’re good and move on. Similarly, you either like a book or you dislike it, etc.

This is reasonable, as the point of communication is to get from point A to point B, but I will argue that we shouldn’t keep things so simple.

I think of the similarities between speech and money, where language functions like currency in that any rational person wants to get more for less. This makes sense. Most people have limited resources and in order to increase those resources they spend their currency sparingly, no matter what the market.

But just as fast food is only momentarily convenient, I think the speech that is easiest to string together is only satisfactory in the short run. In the long run, the most convenient language is actually counterproductive.

I think of Mitt Romney during the debates with Obama, where rather than respecting the possibility of a presidency, Romney claimed a premature ownership of it by saying “when I’m president” — as if merely running for the office meant he would win it.

Romney conveyed only arrogance in his poor choice of words. One could argue that protruding confidence is necessary when running for a position of power, but there’s a lesson to be gained from the fall of Icarus. It’s a warning against overconfidence.

I wonder, though, how voters would have reacted if Romney had employed a more critical lexicon. It doesn’t matter for Romney now, but the candidate’s poor rhetoric is emblematic of a wider general carelessness in our culture’s use of language.

“You guys” when addressing a body of people is similarly careless. English is generally phallocentric or male-centered, and the popular phrase inevitably overlooks the fact that not everyone identifies as a “guy.” While it might seem like a minor detail, “you guys” continues a historical ignorance towards the existence of non-males; therefore, its use should be challenged.

In my observations, people like their convenience, so challenging it generally generates hostility, but educated people should not fear dispelling myths of convention to foster a greater general understanding. It’s necessary.

But “a greater general understanding” should beg a question about the purpose of language.

If the purpose of language is to connect ideas, should it really matter how accurately those ideas are articulated?

Here I offer the concept of a symbiotic relationship between language and ideas, where each influences the other for a mutual benefit, but only after each is considerate of the dual existence of being.

Or, in simpler terms, when we think before we speak, we can change everything.

Consider one more example to highlight our culture’s general carelessness with words. In much of our Western dialogue, the concept of “love” is often thrown around rather unromantically. In English, if we more than like something, limited language suggests we must love it.

It follows then that “loving” is easy. We love everything, but then in turn love nothing.

In this light, one can see how the word is often exhausted in overuse. In order to appreciate the concept of “love,” perhaps we can simply wait. Perhaps just as we wait to show people the deepest treasures of our lives, we can do the same for merely saying “love.”

Until the word’s place somewhere is absolutely merited, perhaps its very uttering should be thought about more critically.

From there, the challenge goes on.

Like money in our pockets on a weekend night out on the town, words are easy to spend, but more difficult to spend wisely. If we meet the challenge, however, we might save more than currency. Indeed, in refining our language we might polish our minds just as well. And that might change everything.

The opportunity awaits you.

JIMMY RECINOS always writes back when you reach him at jrecinos@ucdavis.edu.


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