At home or at work, words matter

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” – Inigo Montoya,The Princess Bride

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

In more ways than most of us could keep track of, we are in a very strange cultural      zone (1*) where the impossible and ridiculous some how becomes the “normal”. We have come to expect the stupid and preposterous from our leaders in business, religion, health and politics.

We hear (or use) terms that, on perhaps thirty seconds of reflection reveal their absurdity or self-contradiction. Some words or terms used to make sense but don’t now, but some never did.

For example how many times have you heard the term “one hundred year flood/ fire/ hurricane/ drought or blizzard?

You might assume that a hundred year cycle might have something to do with an event that happens approximately every hundred years.

And maybe that was true once upon a time (or maybe  it never was) but it is certainly not true now.

Wherever you look you see hundred year floods/ fires/ hurricanes/ droughts or blizzards about every other year.

There was a time, not so long ago, when words had agreed-upon meaning which, when contested, could be confirmed by a printed document known as a dictionary.

Now dictionaries, being digital, can shift as frequently as the attitudes and intonations of the latest slang.

Print dictionaries still exist of course, and maybe in some obscure corners meanings still hold.

But that place is certainly not in the public arena of politics and cultural conversations.

John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1890
John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1890

Public conversations that I hear have more of an emphasis on topics I never thought I would hear in a grown up, if not civilized world. By that I mean serious consideration of aliens, conspiracies and beliefs basically not seen for a thousand years or so.

Anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and adherents of alternative realities seem to fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds – and even every day conversations.

No statement or belief system seems as nonsensical as the one in the next day’s news feed.

In spite of the protestations of these new-found disciples of the “cosmic” – words matter, and words define our laws, our contracts and even our health.

Pete Hegseth, one of the cohosts of Fox & Friends, (with a personal net worth of over 3 million dollars) made the public observation recently that “Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them, therefore they’re not real.”

Apparently, in spite of his education and military service, he has not encountered a microscope. I wonder if he “believes in” electricity, magnetism or gravity.

Measles, essentially gone for a generation (or more) has returned with a vengeance thanks to a growing distrust of the medical establishment – especially in the area of vaccines.

And what is the response of parents to the possibility of their children getting sick – sometimes to the point of death –  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia; one in 1,000 will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain); one or two in 1,000 children will die.

In the US, before a vaccine was introduced in 1963, there were 4 million measles cases with 48,000 hospitalizations and an average of 500 deaths every year.

In a sensible age, parents would be lining up to get their child inoculated from such a potentially fatal scourge, but not now.

Now parents in Washington state are clamoring for their “right” to NOT vaccinate their children. (2*)

For a variety of reasons, Washington and Oregon have become the epicenter of the anti-vaccination movement – and, it follows, the center of the resurgence of a serious childhood disease once on the verge of extinction.

As an observer I have to say that it is absolutely fascinating to live in an era when we don’t believe doctors when they talk about health, climatologists when they talk about weather and we want everyone EXCEPT politicians to hold political office and write our laws.

I’m as skeptical as most Americans, but I also have to say that our faith in anyone except the experts takes us into dangerous territory.

When we don’t believe anyone, we end up believing in anything and are far more susceptible to manipulation whether it be cults or political or religious messiahs.  (3*)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

We are moving into, or perhaps even consolidating our place in, an era of magic and superstition, where logic and expertise are suspect and we put our trust in anyone except those of knowledge and experience.

As Isaac Asimov put it many years ago “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’

You might say that I am biased. Yes, I am. I am a firm believer in truth and integrity, in standing by one’s words and honoring promises and contracts. Words are useful precisely because they have solid (though somewhat malleable and contextual) meanings and interpretations.

Some words are so commonly misused that the original meaning has been lost.

Decimate, for example means one out of ten is lost (“dec” is the root word meaning “ten” as in “decade” or decimal”) but somehow “decimate” has come to mean “devastate”. A headline might read that a fire “completely decimated” a neighborhood. One out of ten is far from total devastation.

“Unique” is another widely misused word. The root is “uni” which means “one” as in “uniform” (a distinctly singular attire) or “unicorn” – and animal with one horn.

“Unique” simply means one of a kind. It either is or it isn’t. It’s not possible to be “very unique” – which means  “very one-of-a-kind.”

“Natural” is another word misused to the point of obliterating its meaning. What, after all is not “natural”?

All kinds of things are toxic or dangerous even though they are “natural”.

To get a little overview of scientific words that don’t mean what most of us think they mean, (like centrifugal force – when you really mean centripetal force)  take a look here –


(1*)    It’s not just us of course, Great Britain’s Brexit adventure is just another example of incoherence and confusion congealing and hardening into political and economic policy – with a multitude of obvious – and unforeseen – mostly negative – consequences.


(3*)    To see a chilling profile of the rise in cults – and our increasing vulnerability to them, check out this article –


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