Clay wrote a brilliant comment on my last post dissenting (somewhat) about the importance of words, roots, and their meaning. I started to write a comment in response but it became clear that that response is its own post.
First, I really appreciate Clay voicing his comment, for multiple reasons. I love dialogue and not getting a free lunch with what I say. I also enjoy having true beliefs and ideas, even if that means I have to get rid of some things I’d like to believe. That said, if anyone reading this blog ever disagrees with me, please comment to that effect.
His main question:
Words are symbols, and when it comes to our internal (and even external) personal development dialog, don’t we get to chose the referent?
Okay, what’s our deal with words? To say that it’s typical for a philosopher and an English professor to worry about words isn’t helpful, though it’s true. The reason we (maybe I shouldn’t indict her on this one) worry about words is that a good word, or phrase, can be worth a thousand pictures.
Sure, we often times do change the meaning of words, but finding a good one that captures what you’re thinking is just as powerful as being able to visualize a picture of what you want.
An example may be in order: take my goal of moving from the type of lifestyle I currently live to one more fitting for my nature. I could leave that desire opaque, but it doesn’t help motivate me. It’s not graspable enough to motivate me.
However, having a word or phrase that references that goal and conjures up the emotions and drive is far better. So it’s tentatively called “Walden.” Not to mention it’s far quicker, to boot.
Another clearer example that we don’t get to choose our words. Sorry, this is going to have one of those “this one time at band camp” stories because I was a trail and canoe guide at a Boy Scout camp for most of my teenage life. I shared a tent with some of my other friends (because we had to), and our tent became a popular hangout. At all times of the day, and sometimes even when we were trying to sleep, there would be people hanging out on, and off of, our tent porch. All day, hanging and jabbering like a bunch of monkeys. So I started calling them what they were: “porchmonkeys”.
Everyone knew what I meant, but there was also this other thing: I was the only minority at this camp. And I didn’t know (really) how porchmonkey was used, at first – and when I found out, I decided to “take it back” and keep using it anyways. I think everyone felt so uncomfortable about telling me that I couldn’t use it that they (mostly) adopted my meaning and embraced the fact that they were, indeed, porchmonkeys.
(Sidebar: If you’re not from certain parts of the United States, you may not know that “porchmonkey” is a racial slur used against African Americans, mainly, but other minorities, as well.)
So, while I agree with Clay that words are symbols, we, individually, don’t get to choose their meanings and referents. Language is a social convention – we, collectively, choose what words mean. Until one person can get the other other to share the meaning of the words, we may at best have communication, but we don’t have understanding. We’re not sharing the same ideas.
We can, and often do, attach different thoughts, ideas, and emotions and transfer them onto words. Most of the words used in the personal development arena – happiness, productivity, success, and, yes, even flourishing – intertwine different thoughts, ideas, and emotions. This can be both good and bad. It’s bad, for example, when we understand productivity to be externally oriented – as I mentioned the other day, productivity is not about things.
Muddying powerful concepts with ideas, emotions, and thoughts that dilute their power is what we’re trying to avoid. “Passion” is horribly muddied in this sense, probably on both the individual and social levels. It’s the difference between your favorite picture with every detail, every color, and every important feature clearly visible and that same picture blurred or faded through time. We can fight the tide and clean up the word – or we can use one that’s not muddied. And we must remember, that words and metaphors work at a level that we’re unconscious of.
I personally thought Clay’s speaking of waking up our true selves and wreaking havoc on the world in beautiful ways was so powerful because it captured the truth that if everyone’s beauty and goodness manifested, it would destroy many features of the world as we know it. Clay communicated with me clearly precisely because he used the right words in the right phrase. He painted the perfect picture – through words.
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Clay Collins | The Growing Life says
OK, so obviously we all don’t get to create our own dictionaries and expect the rest of the world to interpret what we saw as per those dictionaries. What I was talking about was our “internal (and even external) personal development dialog.”
Which is to say that it really don’t matter what the entomological root of “passion” is. If that word evokes the feeling that I want to to evoke, then I get to use it in my journal, in my goals, in my blog etc.
If I wanted to use the word “nazi” to mean “nice person,” then that’s another story. But it’s also a qualitatively different situation.
What I was saying is that we get to use the word “passion” if that’s the word that speaks to us. It wasn’t a larger argument about whether every word in the English lexicon gets to be used in a way that we choose and without regard to convention or the dictionary.
Great discussion, by the way! I’m flattered that you took my comment and made it into a post :-).
Clay Collins | The Growing Life’s last blog post..How to Take the Red Pill
I think I agree with both of you. So, while “we, individually, don’t get to choose meanings and referents”, it is also true that “if that word evokes the feeling that I want to to evoke, then I get to use it”.
10pm. Been a long day. Off to bed. Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion!
Vered’s last blog post..Best Shot Monday: How Important is Your Wedding Band?
Jared Goralnick says
Really great discussion you’ve got here, Charlie. Like Vered, I’m going to take the middle road (although I kind of think it’s close to Clay’s stance). My point is that there are words with single, precise, or at least deeper meanings…and words that can be rich but merit an understanding of the context.
‘nazi’ or ‘porchmonkey’ conjure up deeper images, and that’s why they’re both powerful and controversial. Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” was unusual in its application and that’s why it’s stuck. But it was risky. For instance, as a productivity writer who at times gets a little obsessive with productivity, I’ve considered labeling myself a “productivity nazi” in some settings…but I know its meaning would be lost on many. Heck, you probably don’t even get what I’m after.
Other powerful words that don’t have cultural baggage can also carry more weight than typical words–for instance, it may be appropriate to say the Terps murdered the Blue Devils, but it would catch your eye to hear that the Terps raped the Blue Devils. You might say that to a friend, but you probably wouldn’t write it on your blog.
Understanding these discrepancies is part of being a writer and an effective communicator–that’s what you and Clay and Loren are good at.
The issue here is that etymology is the least relevant reason to use a word in a setting like this. You know the difference between “passion for etymology” and “passion in the bedroom” because of their context. Vitality is not a replacement for passion, both because of its often differing meaning and because people just don’t always get it. For instance, my discussing the nescience of a conversation like this wouldn’t mean anything to you. (Sorry to be pleonastic.)
So yeah, it’s important to be precise–but that precision should be applied to clearer meaning rather than based wholly on a word’s roots. If the word’s roots are significant then you’ll probably feel deep down that there’s something to it (like the difference between complacency and contentment–most people feel the difference but can’t pinpoint it).
If there are implications to the word passion for YOU then skip it. Just don’t do it because of the OED, do it because of what it means for you.
Jared Goralnick’s last blog post..15 ways to make the most of your phone calls and keep in touch
Clay Collins | The Growing Life says
Oh shoot! I just read my earlier comment and realized that I sound upset or something. I’m not upset at all and am grateful for this very interesting conversation. Thanks for providing a venue for the open exchange of interesting ideas!
Clay Collins | The Growing Life’s last blog post..How to Take the Red Pill
Charles Gilkey says
Wow, interesting discussion we’ve got going here.
After reading what I wrote, thinking about it, and then having the great comments, I realized that I focused considerably on the wrong aspect of the conversation.
Loren’s original conversation was about what “passion” meant to her with her knowing the root and associating it with things many don’t. My argument was more about external meanings, referents, and such.
So the middle ground, as Vered and Jared point out, deals with what the words mean for people who do not carry the historical baggage of meaning with them. For them, passion may work fine.
Jared also correctly pointed out that words gather their full meaning in a context – so “passion about productivity” and “passionate for chocolate” can have a different meanings.
There’s an analogy here which seems true to me. There are some people who can work with the TV on and it increases their productivity – or at least they’re in their normal productive state. There are others – myself included – that absolutely cannot work with the TV on. For some of us, the noise of “misused” words and language are like the distractions of the TV; others filter out the noise quite well.
I still think that we can do better than “passion” – but that’s because I’ve probably spent far too long in dictionaries looking for the “right” words and recognize that language is a vehicle for communication. The right word for me is not necessarily the right word to use – because of these shared conventions. Precision with language is one of the mores of academia, especially among philosophers and people from the language arts.
And one of the roles of academia is to preserve cultural information and pass it on – part of that cultural information is the history or our language.
Another ending analogy: visual artists will often times have these types of discussion about colors. Blue and navy blue just shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Likewise, musicians know that a C major and a C major 7 have different applications, though one can be swapped for the other in a pinch. Words are the medium for the art of blogging (because bloggers are writers), though many don’t consider it that way.
So my considered stance is far closer to the middle than the hard etymological-determinist stance above. Etymology, agreed, is not intrinsically the most important feature to think about. Instrumentally, though, it can be very important, as it often has an important relation to what words mean and the contexts in which they’re used. We must also recognize that some people are more sensitive to words than others, and your mileage may vary.