I was going to call this post “Useless Words” or “Silly Words” but at the end of the day words can’t actually be useless (agreed upon usage is all that meaning really is anyways), and I’m not sure it’s fair to call any given word silly. It isn’t the word’s fault that people don’t know how to use it consistently. That being said the phenomenon I’m thinking about is real. There are a great many words in the English language that are no longer sensible in their popular usage. I’m not one of those people who thinks languages should be static, unchanging, immovable. On the contrary I think the evolutionary nature of language is what makes it so fun and fascinating. What annoys me is people who say that a word means one thing but use it as though it means something else. I’m going to pick on two particular words today. I’m not going to pick on any particular person or publication, this is a general observation on my part. If you think I’m wrong or being overly general, feel free to disagree in the comments.
Scientist. I’m sick to death of the ubiquitous “scientists say” or “according to leading scientists” that we hear on television and read in newspapers. If I were to ask the average writer who uses this word what he or she means, my guess is that I would hear something about observable, empirical, reproducible evidence, about unbiased research and perhaps even something about facts or truth. All of those things are well and good so far as they go. I’ll set aside in depth comments about competing epistemological points of view and the role of scientific method in the search for truth. My real complaint today is that when news outlets (and people in general for that matter) talk about scientists they are not referring to people who observe the world in a particular way and then comment on those observations (which is what scientists do). The rhetorical subtext of the common use of the word “scientist” is far more closely related to older uses of the word “priest.” That is, it refers to a gatekeeper at the fortress of truth. Instead of being just a person using particular methodology a scientist is now someone who holds facts in his or her hands and dispenses them to us mere mortals who can never understand the universe in a meaningful way. I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off scrapping “scientist” and speak of people who do research according to scientific methodology as physicists, chemists, sociologists, biologists, etc.
Literally. This one annoys me far more than “scientist.” That’s mostly because when people use it they often mean exactly the opposite of what the word means. Just this evening I heard a woman say that her friend had a baby who’s head was flat, “literally like a wall.” How can a boy’s head be literally like a wall? Was it made of rock or brick? What this woman meant, of course, was that the child’s head is similar to a wall, in that it is decidedly flat in much the same way as a wall. This use of “literal” and “literally” is particularly dangerous when people read the Bible (and other sacred texts I’m sure). People who insist on the literal truth of the Bible don’t really mean to say that every single word in the Bible contains only denotative (and not connotative) value. That would be ridiculous. Take the simple example of Jesus’ words concerning the person with a plank in his or her eye attempting to remove a grain of dust from the eye of another. How can these words possibly be literal? No person could ever place an actual plank into his or her eye. It is a metaphor and must be read metaphorically. Somewhat might object and say that so called “biblical literalists” only mean that the Bible should be taken at face value. If someone can tell me what “face value” is, precisely, then perhaps we can have a conversation about that. All I know is that nobody can read the whole Bible literally.
But it’s late now, and scientists say that a person should try to get at least 8 hours of sleep. Plus I’m so tired I could sleep like the dead…literally.