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Words and Clarity

Jake Goldsmith


’m almost fearful of the unwanted connotations so many words possess.

I’m not fond of, or rather I am no good at naturally following, rules for clear language, apparently unpretentious, not too wordy or complex. So I admit I’m, somehow, posturing and hypocritical. Yet I feel insecure about this, and I really don’t think I’m speaking in some completely obtuse way nobody can understand. Some accuse me of being verbose, but I don’t think my vocabulary is very elaborate or outlandish; all the words used here are common and my faults may be with clunky syntax and punctuation. It takes more effort to avoid common metaphors and allusions than to speak robotically, even if I have a problem with convoluted or pretentious metaphors.

I like words, I like words that are not just useful but aesthetically lovely, and I care enough about how I am speaking and wanting to be understood as well as I can convey to also equally disdain other words. My autism, as well as the precarious position my illnesses put me in—having to regularly engage with medical professionals—also means that clarity and a fuller understanding of how I am feeling is more important to me. So I care a lot about how I speak, and I genuinely don’t think I speak in some grandiose or overly-complicated way. I find it hard to ‘dumb-down’ my language (as I’ve been told I need to do) even if I strive for clarity. I don’t think it’s difficult to understand what I say . . . unless I’m over-estimating others.

It’s difficult to speak, and especially to explain or identify more complex subjects, without using new-fangled words and evolving vocabulary, and we are often bound within the limits of our language. Much can be said, and has been said, of the limitations of language inhibiting the development of thought or creating its own paradigm; one that can be hard to escape without the introduction of new words and thus a new understanding. Use older vocabulary, and one can appear out-of-touch, offensive (according to current social norms, rightly or wrongly), or fail to adequately describe new developments. New vocabulary is not much better: redundant words in a ‘re-inventing the wheel’ fashion abound, new terms come into use without better definitions and obfuscate things as much as they may, sometimes, bring clarity with the coinage of a pithy phrase, or intuitive description for a contemporary event or concept.

The fault of older language can be more obvious, and when older words fall into disuse or fail to properly account for how things have progressed, new words can be useful—at least if the apparent replacement is a robust or accurate descriptor, though many new words and terms are not good as acute or even obtuse descriptors. My distaste for them can be practical, suggesting that a fashionable phrase doesn’t actually give a useful definition. The other concern is how so many words are shibboleths or in-group signifiers, whose use comes with a great amount of social and cultural baggage. Words are often over-used by different groups with different definitions, many of them ignorant or vulgar. Political vocabulary suffers the worst fate, with too many individual, idiosyncratic, and particular understandings of words by different allegiances, coloured by their prejudices and ideological hankerings. The introduction of so many superfluous words and the technology to facilitate them produce more misunderstanding than coherence. Words are now less standardised; a greater democracy of meaning occurs with words and the reportage of events with the quantitative expansion of media. One can suggest some, perhaps obvious, moral and practical advantages to advances in literacy. The unintended consequences mean that lies spread faster than truth, with this trend only becoming exaggerated with social media and the internet. An abundance of knowledge, and new words, does not mean we are adept in classifying, understanding, and using them. A larger, disorganised library is worse than a smaller but organised one.

Even when words are accurate, they can simply be embarrassing in how they sound or how they’re used. I don’t want to use words that make me cringe because of how aesthetically displeasing they are, which might seem vain, but I’m not just being petty. Ugly words aren’t bad just because they look and sound bad in some artistic sense; their ugliness creates new connotations, their use by particular people or groups creates new connotations too, and eventually the words devolve into clichés and lose meaning in this process—thus becoming less useful or accurate.

Social classes and cultural groups use their own vocabularies and have a great selection of choice words, often adapted and adopted popularly outside their origins. I have a problem with class colloquialisms from all social ranks. Upper and lower classes each use their own language which can be indecipherable to outsiders, and outsiders are then mocked and even punished for failing to understand—if they even had the capacity to do so. This is worse when it’s top-down, with cultural elites deriding those they think beneath them for a lack of education or superficial eloquence. Yet this doesn’t mean lower classes don’t perform a similar game, if not as socially and practically damaging. Teenagers mock out-of-touch adults for not knowing the latest cool lingo, and the reverse happens as older generations mock the youth for being ignorant of outmoded phrases and cultural signifiers. Each is guilty of their own sort of hubris. We shouldn’t feel a need to mock people for not knowing what many won’t even get the time to know. Why should everyone be cognisant of the latest Fortnite trend or events occurring years before their birth, entirely irrelevant to their everyday survival?

This is an uncharitable interpretation, and I won’t in full sincerity subscribe to it, but I might define this as a sort of cultural hubris or individualist insecurity where indicating to others that one is part of a specific, insular cultural or social group is, consciously or not, more important than communicating understandably across social and cultural boundaries. I don’t entirely begrudge the need, or the desire, for this cultural membership achieved through language, and it’s understandable that all of us, besides the most anti-social and misanthropic, act this way. But ideally, I would want language to function definitionally, to describe and explain feelings, processes, ways of being, events, etc, before it is artistic or fashionable. Which is certainly not to say words can’t ever be flippant, idiomatic, or silly, but that I have a prioritisation in mind.

The use of words following cultural fashions means less care about being accessible or being understood, and this can be, though not always, somewhat selfish—and worse, creating further barriers and obstacles to understanding each other. If we don’t need to really understand each other, the least we should have is an appreciation for other lives; in its worst configuration unique colloquialisms show a contempt for acknowledging the ignorance of others or making the world, as complex and increasingly fast-paced as it is, more hospitable. If a new word obfuscates our understanding of something more than it defines it effectively, then on balance it’s not a good word—even if it sounds good or follows a recent trend. I think a collective coherence of words is more important than words following fashions, changing with the wind and acting as signifiers before, more neutrally, serving a practical function of conveying information and knowledge. Which should not be essential, but at least a decent suggestion.

This does not mean we can, or should, develop some way of speaking and writing that, in some bland, impossibly objective process, serves a pure functionality or aligns to some narrow prescriptivism. I am not a prescriptivist, solid in some conviction of the definition of words, and I fully accept the premise, or actuality, that the meaning of words comes more from their use and the context of their use; and I am fine to use nouns as verbs or turn adjectives into verbs, or the opposite, and frequently change the meaning and context of words in a perpetually evolving process, socially, for comedy, or just in my own idiosyncratic use. The more pertinent concern, whether or not one subscribes to a theory of linguistics where definitions and use are prescribed or described, is the efficacy of words and definitions. It is good to change the meaning of words, especially if an earlier use is less comprehensible in the light of modern understanding, and I think my overly-critical, discerning use of words doesn’t mean I’m any sort of language purist. The opposite is true, I’m far closer to Lewis Carroll and “when I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”. I’m just more pedantically concerned about the ability to be understood, or rather have my meaning not be so easily lost and confused—even if I don’t think a true understanding is possible. It’s a matter of survival and my good health that I express myself in a way that isn’t easily misunderstood.

Trying to police and enforce language more actively with official or organised interventions will produce much greater problems and lead to significant misunderstanding, as this is an attempt to control what we can’t or shouldn’t artificially control. Speaking differently is not a crime. And I know my personal concerns are just that: personal, and my complaints mean little. I do not intend to be the Word Police. I’m not making a serious or practicable call to action, policy instruction or asking that others, somehow, alter their speech to fit my peculiar tastes. Nor do I, really, discredit the use of all euphemisms. And I enjoy a fun turn-of-phrase. I use eccentric or particular phrases and names all the time that others, seeking some distilled clearest version of English, would think are niche and require too much explanation or prior knowledge. I still hold some minor contention on balance that contemporary society has further proliferated, and at greater speed, words that don’t, first, fulfil the purpose of providing a clear definition and eliminating misunderstandings as much as we can. Yes, better words exist.

There isn’t a good way to solve this. Creating my own special and unique language and lexicon brings just as much, if not more trouble—so the very least I try to do is limit (though never eliminate) the use of esoteric jargon nouns and describe things in as straightforward a way as I can, limiting the use of euphemisms unless I’m trying to be funny or unserious.

People can be too particular about language. It’s possible to say something that conforms with someone’s beliefs, yet if it doesn’t use perceptibly correct or fashionable slogans, or popular phrases and buzzwords, others may mistakenly believe one is not on their ‘side’ and become indignant. People want in-group signification and an easy confirmation of friend or enemy (a shortcut to bypass information overload), instead of a real acknowledgment of intent. The ‘wrong’ words are read in bad faith, and the words in themselves become more important than the ideal objective, limiting modes of expression. Words should matter less than underlying attitudes, and most do not know how to explain themselves perfectly. This is politically counterproductive and becomes a failure to recognise forever imperfect democratic allies just because they differ a bit or use a different language which people have essentialised (becoming prescriptivists).

Ideas become ‘prepackaged’, especially online and algorithmically. If one wants to subscribe to an idea, it is socially supposed that they also subscribe to another two apparently congruent ideas. The reality that people can, and do, pick and choose various ideas, and that ideas don’t just come in pre-formed groups, is dismissed or denied. Part of this rationale exists as it’s then easier to ‘understand’ others, and ideas generally, so when someone expresses an idea it’s supposed that one can then know everything else one is supposed to think rather than realise they might only hold one view and not another. Ideas aren’t always interconnected, but convenient logic suppose they are.

Some of this article is prompted by a funny post I made in an online meme group, insincerely, jokingly, partly as a self-parody and hinting at my own autistic, obsessive fixation with perceptions and appearances:

I hate all neologisms, buzzwords, shibboleths, euphemisms, clichés, jargon, colloquialisms, lingo, and trendy nomenclature, associated with any subculture, because I am unique and special.

Instead of using neologisms, buzzwords, shibboleths, euphemisms, clichés, jargon, colloquialisms, lingo, and trendy nomenclature, I prefer to describe and explain things with more detailed definitions while not so easily resorting to neologisms, buzzwords, shibboleths, euphemisms, clichés, jargon, colloquialisms, lingo, and trendy nomenclature that require further explanation or shared, implicit understandings others may not possess.

If I really must use any neologisms, buzzwords, shibboleths, euphemisms, clichés, jargon, colloquialisms, lingo, or trendy nomenclature, for ease, ‘shorthand’, or convenience, I do so in quotations and with an eye-roll (🙄), sarcastically, or as a joke. This is because I am smarter than you, and better than you, and I dont wish to be associated with any groups.

Any groups that I appear to be a part of are blessed with my presence only for the purposes of research, or I am only a constituent of various taxonomical, political, social, cultural, familial, or geographical groupings involuntarily.

Regardless, that’s why Joe Biden is Goated with the sauce and is a Sigma Chad with W Rizz for supporting the unions.


Jake Goldsmith